New Teacher Temptation #2

Teacher counseling student

The “private mode approach” – see below. Pic via phorntip46.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago I wrote about a temptation I found myself giving into all the time as a new teacher. Let me say at once that, according to most rubrics, I am still a new teacher. Not brand new, of course. Not a newborn. But perhaps a toddler who has learned a thing or two. I still give into these new teacher temptations all of the time, but I am becoming experienced enough to at least recognize them when I do. And for any baby teachers out there, I’d like to share these temptations with you so you can be on the lookout.

Now I’d like to add another one, now officially entitled new teacher temptation #2:

The idea that the best way to get a student to go back to doing what you want during class is to reason with that student.

When teaching high school, this temptation can be very strong indeed. Most of your students seem to demonstrate (occasionally) the ability to reason and employ logical argumentation. Many of them seem to relish this rather newfound ability. In a sincere effort to meet them where they are, you believe that when conflict arises, the most rational thing to do is to reason with them.

However, it is not.

Imagine this scenario (which may or may not be strongly based upon multiple interactions I have had with students over the last few years):

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

“Mira, there is no talking during bell work. That’s your verbal warning,” I say as I continue taking attendance.

*First rookie mistake. I had a perfect opportunity to go over to Mira’s desk and remind her of the expectations privately. Instead, I responded to her in front of the whole class, perhaps because I wanted all the students to know that I strictly enforce my expectations. Now she will feel the need to save face in front of her peers.

“But I broke my pencil,” Mira (reasonably) objects. “I was just asking for a new one.”

“I understand that,” I reply. “However, we all know that during bell work, there is no talking unless you raise your hand and I call on you. We’ve discussed before how beginning class silently helps all of you get focused more quickly and how it frees me to take attendance and prepare for class.”

*Second rookie mistake. I not only am prolonging the conversation, I am attempting to reason with Mira – to show her that my expectations are logical and necessary. Now she will feel the need to show me that her behavior is logical and necessary.

“But if I didn’t have a pencil, I wouldn’t be able to do my bell work at all,” she responds.

Heads begin to turn. There are murmurs of agreement.

“True,” I reply calmly. “But if that situation happens, you can just raise your hand and let me know you need a new pencil. Please get back to work.”

*Third rookie mistake. It’s too late now to offer alternative solutions. I’m just prolonging this conversation now because I want to show her that I’m right.

Mira, encouraged by the glances and murmurs around her, continues. “But I didn’t want to disturb you. It’s not like it’s a big deal. I just needed a pencil.”

Realizing the situation is getting out of hand, I realize too late that I need to stop it. I say, “Okay, Mira. We can talk about this after class.”

*Fourth rookie mistake. In an effort to diffuse the situation and to try to be reasonable, I have inadvertently given a consequence – staying after class. Now Mira feels as though I have been unjust. This whole interaction has taken place publicly, in front of her peers. Being the sixteen-year-old who is dedicated to the core adolescent principles fairness, justice, and looking good, she cannot simply let it go.

“But that’s not fair! I just needed a pencil! You can’t keep me after class for that!”

… the situation disintegrates from there. You get the idea.

There are multiple things going on here, but one of the most important ones was my desire to reason with Mira in front of her peers. I wanted her to understand why she should not ask Angela for a pencil during bell work. I thought that if she understood my reasoning, she and the rest of the class would cooperate and approve of my wisdom.

As you can see, that is not the case.

Do not – I repeat – do not attempt to reason with your students in the middle of class. You can attempt such a thing later, in private. You can reason with them as a group while discussing a hypothetical situation, as I do when discussing consequences for cheating or giving a brief rationale for certain procedures at the beginning of the year.

But providing a rationale for your real-time actions during class only gives students the opportunity to argue with you.

And if you give them that opportunity, they’ll take it with gusto.

Here’s how I should have handled the situation:

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

Immediately, in full view of other students but with the clear intention of being discreet, I walk over to Mira and kneel down by her desk as she is working. I whisper,

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

In 90% of these kinds of situations, that intervention is enough. Because I have kept my interaction with Mira as private as possible AND shown her that I understand why she behaved as she did, she will not feel the need to argue with me. And because I have not attempted to reason with her – I have only reminded her of the expectations – she will not feel the need to defend her actions.

Some kids, however, may respond anyway. Luckily, since I have already framed the conversation as a private one, this is the likely alternative scenario:

“But I needed a new pencil, Ms. Shea,” Mira responds quietly.

“I understand that. In the future, just raise your hand for me or go over to the supply table in the back of the room where you can borrow one.”

In this case, I can offer Mira an alternative solution since we are having a private conversation. Most of the time, this approach will work and there will be no public confrontation at all.

In other situations, you might get a student who wants to argue with you from the get-go. In that case, you still should not attempt to reason with the student. The best thing to do is to simply repeat the directions like a broken record.

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

“But I just needed a pencil. Can’t I ask a friend for a pencil?”

Remaining by her desk, still in private conversation mode with a whisper or very quiet tone: “Get back to work, please.”

Student responds as I walk away: “But unless I got the pencil from Angela, I wouldn’t be able to do it!”

Return to her desk in order to maintain private mode. Still use a calm, quiet tone. “Get back to work, please.”

“But I wasn’t trying to distract anybody.”

“Get back to work, please.”

Frustrated sigh. Student gets back to work.

There will be rare occasions when the 1) private intervention and 2) broken record approach do not work. But they MUST be tried. And you MUST not reason with your student in front of the class. Save the reasoning for a private conversation outside of class, when the student feels no need to appear triumphant and victorious in front of her peers.

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In Defense of Memorization

CH940127_JPG

source: imgur.com

It is not fashionable these days – nor has it been for some twenty-five years – to advocate for memorization in teaching.

You hear people saying of their favorite teachers, “He wasn’t just about rote memorization” or “She didn’t just make us memorize facts” or “They wanted us to actually appreciate X” — as if memorization somehow necessarily precludes appreciation.

Even in ACE, which inevitably adopts some of the latest teaching theories (often for good but sometimes not), I remember getting the impression that having my students internalize “enduring understandings” was far more important than having them internalize “facts.”

The National Education Association’s article last year has a title that sums up the popular view quite well: “Deeper Learning: Moving Students Beyond Memorization.”

Reread that title again, and think about the either-or logical fallacy it is using.

An excerpt:

The focus on memorization, fueled by standardized testing, has obstructed learning, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who argues that students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school.

But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. Enter “deeper learning” – the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations. Students “transfer” knowledge rather than just memorize it. The benefits of deeper learning, says Darling-Hammond, can’t be overstated. (Luke Towler)

It’s interesting that Towler says memorization is “fueled by standardized testing.” At least in terms of the ACT or SAT, memorization will not get you very far at all. These are skills-based tests that care very little whether or not you know what synecdoche is or what year the first Constitutional Congress met or even if you can articulate the definition of an independent clause.

It is true that the SAT and ACT are the kinds of tests one must learn how to attack — students who spend lots of money on tutoring institutions which study how theses tests work usually do far better than those who go in blind. But this sort of thing has very little to do with memorization.

Note the definition of “deeper learning” in Towler’s article: “the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations” (emphasis added). I can’t tell you how many times, as a teacher, I have been told to make content more relevant for my kids by making it “real-world” applicable.

The implication, of course, is that memorization of facts, no matter how true or important those facts are, will not prepare you for the “real world.” By which term, I suspect, these people mean the “world” of business and money and career. This, for them, is the “real world.”

My first couple of years of teaching, I remember myself saying to students who were anxiously peppering me before their tests, “Don’t worry, you do not have to have all of the names of the characters in The Scarlet Letter memorized — what is far more important to me is that you can discuss their internal motivations, etc.”

They would always sigh with relief. “Internal motivations” can be faked. Names and dates cannot.

I, too, often assumed a dichotomy between memorization and deeper understanding. As if memorization is easy and understanding is hard, or as if memorization is shallow and understanding sophisticated.

And yet when I went to the University of Dallas, I was required during my junior year summative project on poetry to — you guessed it — memorize a poem.

Of course, you had to do more than that.

After having dedicated your entire intellectual – (and, I would argue, emotional) – life to a great poet for a semester, you had to choose an “exemplary” poem and memorize it. This poem of your choosing had to be one that “exemplified” the key characteristics of your poet. After memorizing it, you had to prepare an explication of the poem that you presented two a panel of three professors, who afterwards would bombard you with any questions about your poet’s body of work that they wished.

In his well-written Atlantic article, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning”, Ben Orlin argues “Raw rehearsal is the worst way to learn something. It eats up time and requires no real thinking.”

Well, yes. It does eat up time. I spent many hours practicing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur with my college friends that I could have spent instead thinking deeply about how meter affects meaning or how Frost and Stevens had influenced Wilbur’s style.

To make matters worse, most junior poet veterans advised us to memorize more than one poem. So I also memorized “The Beautiful Changes,” “A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” “October Maples: Portland” and a few Emily Dickinson poems for good measure.

Yet I found, at least with poetry, that “raw rehearsal” requires a good deal of “real thinking.” In fact, you cannot really know a poem well unless you memorize it – unless you make it a part of you – unless you allow its sound, its structure, its diction to become so ingrained in your subconscious mind that when you see the wind jostling the leaves on the oak tree, you think to yourself,

I crave Him grace of Summer Boughs,

If such an Outcast be –

Who never heard that fleshless Chant –

Rise – solemn – on the Tree […]

(Emily Dickinson, “321”)

Or, when you see autumn in its New England glory, you say to yourself:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.

(Richard Wilbur, “October Maples: Portland”)

As I said in my previous post, having poems committed to memory in your emotional arsenal equips you very well for the complexities of life. Even if I cannot fully articulate my experience of losing my students year after year, Elizabeth Bishop can.

And if you don’t like poetry very much, you probably do like songs. And we learn songs by heart for much the same reason. Music can express for us what otherwise cannot be expressed. Even my high school students understand that.

I would agree with the post-modern educational elite that memorization, by itself, is not a very high level of thinking. But I would also insist that it is a prerequisite for deeper thinking in many fields, especially literature. And I suspect the same is true for math, science and social studies as well.

If Calvin (see above cartoon) knows the pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620, and knows a few more meaningless dates besides, he has the groundwork for constructing a timeline for American history in his head.

For Catholics, Christians, and Jews, memorization is a key part of the spiritual life. Jesus evidently had many of the Psalms engraved upon his heart, such that even in his last agony on the Cross, he found expression for his suffering in the words of Psalm 22.

Mary, too, composed her Magnificat with the songs of Miriam in Ex 15:21, Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10, Deborah in Judges 5 clearly in mind (see Biblegateway).

Their “rote memorization” of biblical texts, probably in childhood, clearly paved the way for a deeper understanding of God’s mysterious working in their later lives.

Memorized texts, poems and facts cannot, by themselves, make an educated mind. But they can lay the groundwork. They can give the human heart things to hold onto when faced with true mystery.

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The Art of Losing

Elizabeth Bishop’s intriguing and delicate poem always comes to my mind at the end of the school year. I hope someday some of my own students will have poems like this in their hearts, poems that come to their aid and express what cannot otherwise really be expressed.
 

One Art – by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
 so many things seem filled with the intent
 to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster
 of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
 places, and names, and where it was you meant
 to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

 I lost my mother's watch.  And look! my last, or
 next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
 The art of losing isn't hard to master.

 I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
 some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
 I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

 ---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
 I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
 the art of losing's not too hard to master
 though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

Friday was the last day of classes. I spent part of each class visiting the freshman and explaining their summer reading assignments to them, while the junior English teacher visited my kids. For the rest of the period I answered questions about the final exam, gave them some extra study guides and rubrics and things of that sort. It was pretty mundane, actually.

 

Honestly I like keeping things mundane at the end of the year. No standing on desks for me, thank you. I’m so emotionally wrung out by the end of the year that it wouldn’t take much to push me over the edge.
 
A few students, though, came and visited me during lunch or after school to say a special “thank you” – which was very moving to me. The student who asked me at the beginning of the year “Who is Christianity?” came and gave me a big hug before I could stop her. I wish I had taken greater care in thanking each of my own teachers at the end of the year when I was in school.  I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

 

On the other hand, I also had a student infuriate me by acting out quite rudely to another teacher. I kept him after school for a while writing a lengthy apology letter. The first one was not satisfactory, so he had to start over and write another. He was frustrated because he did not believe (or at least admit, at first) that he had done anything wrong. I was frustrated because he had acted so obtusely and rather maliciously, and did not seem to understand why I was making him write the letter.  Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 

 

There were the usual hordes coming in at lunchtime in desperation, hoping (for some reason) that I would give them an extension on their final paper… the day it was due. As usual, I was cruel and heartless. 

 

But I was saddened later to learn that one student in particular would not be returning to my school next year. She has tackled my class with tenacity, hard work, and lots of sarcasm. Unsure about her own beliefs about God and Catholicism, she has asked some of the best questions I’ve ever heard a high school student ask. I have loved talking with her outside of class about her papers and her questions. I wrote in her yearbook that she should never stop asking those questions. Those who seek, will find. I will miss her.  But I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master. 

 

All in all, it was a very typical day except for the art of losing part. A junior, who was one of my kids last year, came in at the end of the day and remarked as he was leaving, “It must be kind of hard being a teacher. You have to say goodbye to so many people so often.” 

 

I agreed but added rather casually that one has to get used to it. So many things seem filled with the intent /
to be lost that their loss is no disaster…

 

Awhile later I pulled into the parking lot outside of my apartment, turned off the ignition, and suddenly found myself crying – maybe because I felt a little of what real parents feel when they send their kids off to college.

 

What a gift I have! To get to know these crazy people and come to care about them so much.

 

I definitely need a break. But give me a few weeks and I’ll be impatient for next year, for another batch of people to love and eventually to say goodbye to.

 

Good thing the art of losing isn’t hard to master. …though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 

photo-4

my empty classroom

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End of the Year List

teachers-end-of-school-year

source: blog.gradeable.com

 

Something I’ve been doing since my first year of teaching is creating an end of the year list of things that didn’t work, could be improved or I know I definitely want to revamp for next year.

If you wait too long after the year ends, you’re likely to forget all of the ideas swirling in your head of the procedures you thought were a good idea in August but ended up making your life miserable in December.

So here’s my unedited list so far. The only thing I changed for you was to add links to relevant previous posts in case you have no idea what I’m talking about and would like to find out.

To be honest, I’m a little ashamed that I had to put some of these items on the list. You’d think that by the end of my fourth year of teaching, I’d have it a little more together. Alas.

1. Don’t grade bell work or non-assessments. HEADACHE. (See new grading policy).

2. Include Essential Questions in Table of Contents – have some means of answering them – in a fishbowl, beginning and end of unit? Writing?

3. Have a Pass Papers OUT procedure – put a student in charge so I can be free to direct and teach

4. Have a Pass IN procedure that is competitive but productive (Right now I have a pass-in competition between all of my classes that is so competitive that it has ceased being productive.)

5. Try HW on desks again instead of passing it in to tray by the door? Avoid traffic jams by the door? Have “I didn’t do my homework” slips for them to fill out?

6. Have a Verbal Warning system that is communicated to parents and students and can be reported

7. Have behavior charts? Signed by parents and students? Plan for improvement?

8. Practice No Opt Out and Right is Right a lot more. #TeachLikeAChampion2.0

9. Update Retake Policy 

10. New Late work policy

11. New Missing work policy

12. Update Table of Contents for Grammar and Vocabulary goals too.

13. Have a binder check / missing handouts system.

14. Have more clearly defined group work procedures. Have prepared mixed ability level groups, similar ability level groups, etc.

15. Have different students practice leading fishbowl discussions

16. More organization for Writing Folders. What can kids do with them? Write improvement reflections? Discuss work they are proud of? Self-assessment?

17. Have rewards for classroom jobs that are non-academic

18. Have juniors tutor sophomores on writing? Teach them how to teach – No Opt Out, Right is Right, Praise Correct Praise, etc.?

 

Anyone else have a list of suggestions?

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New Teacher Temptation #1

There is a new English teacher at my school who is working with the freshman. I love her! She has done so well – especially coming in halfway through the year and working hard to establish great procedures. But like all new teachers, she is overwhelmed.

I have loved talking with her and remembering my own first year teaching. I am doing my best to help her not succumb to the same worries and temptations that I did – or, at the very least, to be aware of them.

One we were discussing recently is new teacher temptation #1:

The idea that unless you are talking the whole class period and exhausting yourself, you are being a lazy teacher and your kids aren’t learning.

Or, it can also manifest itself this way:

The idea that if your kids are working silently for long periods of time and you are not talking to the whole class, you are being a bad teacher.

Both of these ideas are completely false, but they are chronic worries for the new teacher and sometimes even for the more experienced teacher.

These tempting but utterly misleading ideas arise for many reasons. One is that some teachers, who merely pass out worksheets all day and sit behind their desks while the kids do them (or don’t do them), are being bad teachers. If that practice is your modus operandi, there is something seriously wrong. I saw this practice occurring a lot at my old school and I wanted to be as different from that as possible — and so I thought that it was my job to be the entertaining center-of-attention in my classroom.

Like this:

male-teacher-cartoon

So exciting. Source: publicdomainpictures.net

If you google “teacher cartoon” on google images, you’d see how most of the pictures look like this, because this is what society thinks teaching should look like. Teacher talking, chalkboard behind him or her, and coffee.

But that’s not always true.

New teachers: the center of attention in your classroom should not be you. It should be student learning.

Whatever methods get you there are good methods.

Sometimes that means you, as a teacher, need to do most of the talking during a certain lesson. Other times that means the kids need to do most of the talking. Other times that means nobody needs to do ANY talking for a certain period of time.

The point is, you want to find the most helpful and efficient way to facilitate learning in your kids.

This is a nice picture, but I bet you very little actual learning is going on here:

learningcenter

source: alpinecommunitynetwork.com

I mean, how could it be? The blonde boy will have an aching neck in a moment, the girl with the pig tails can barely see the text, and the boy with his mouth open in astonishment is pointing at a conspicuously huge and picture-less volume that is probably not as thrilling as the picture wants you to believe. Only the girl on the right seems to be reading.

I mean, these pictures look a lot more realistic to me, albeit less glamorous:

GARZA STAFFORD

source: americanprogress.org

SONY DSC

source: blog.gonoodle.com

My friend, the new freshman teacher, was wondering if it would be okay for her to spend a few days having the kids read a challenging text individually in class (since they probably wouldn’t read it outside of class) and answer questions about it. I gave her some further ideas about how to differentiate.

“Are you sure that’s okay?” she said. “I mean, it’s going to be really quiet in my room for the next couple of days. It’s okay to have them read during class? By themselves?”

I affirmed that it was, indeed okay – in fact, wonderful – because it was the simplest way for her to help her kids achieve the learning goal.

I couldn’t help but think of Harry Wong saying “Get to work! Get to work! Get to work!” in his video on classroom management.  But he is right. The point is not to make yourself work (although, inevitably, that will happen). The point is to make the kids work:

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Source: dcmp.org

Here’s an example of a choice I made today that I would have had a very hard time making my first year:

We’re starting a new unit (our last unit!) on Dante’s Inferno. Here is my objective:

SWBAT explain historical context and background information for Dante.

My first year of teaching (and my second… and my third…) I would have felt it was my responsibility to give the kids information like this. After all, some of them haven’t even heard of Dante, and none of them know more than one or two facts about him. So I probably would have made a guided notes sheet and a power point presentation where I used “direct instruction” (translation: teacher talking, students listening and taking notes) to get the important facts about Dante into the kids’ heads. After all, “explain” is a very low-level Bloom’s verb and so taking on the more active role is not a bad idea.

But this year I realized that this method was not the most effective way for my kids to learn about Dante’s life and times.

So instead, this year, I created a packet with critical questions and suggestions for helpful websites. Then I took them to the library and they researched Dante’s life themselves and answered the questions, citing the sources. All I did was walk around, observe, keep them on track, and help them when necessary.

Tomorrow I will briefly go over the answers with them just to make sure they have their facts straight.

My classroom was not only quiet today, it was empty.

And the library was pretty quiet too.

But the point is, it was much more powerful for the kids to find the information for themselves rather than merely receiving it from me. They will be more likely to remember it, too.

I still felt a little guilty. That New Teacher Temptation made me want to explain myself to our librarian, to assure her that I wasn’t just taking the day off.

But I resisted.

New teachers – trust yourselves. Pick the method that will help your kids learn — not the one that makes you look good.

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Lost Causes – Updated

Please take some time to read this beautiful post by a teacher whose blog I have been reading for some time now. Like, go click the link below and read the whole thing right now:

What I Wish I Could Tell Them About Teaching in a Title I School by Love, Teach.

A small part:

I’m also not writing this for proof or validation that I work hard. I don’t have anything to prove about my work ethic or value as a teacher, to myself or anyone else, and this is not meant to initiate a game of “who has it worse.”

[…]

No. I’m writing this because I care about what happens to my students, and other children like them in Title I schools across this country whose needs are not being met, and who are learning harmful lessons from the larger systems in place that are supposed to help them. I am writing this to give others a picture of the type of learning and teaching environments that are being created by these systems.  I’m writing because it’s 2015, and far too many children in this country are still receiving a lower quality education because of the neighborhood into which they were born. (Love, Teach)

I am in a much easier situation than this brave soldier. I do not, and have not ever, taught in a Title I public school.

But I am a teacher too, and so my heart breaks.

She says,

I would tell them that it feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about. (Ibid)

She’s in an impossible situation.

And yet, and yet, when I was reading her post, something inside me kept saying, “No!”

I don’t want this teacher to leave.

I don’t know who she is, and heaven knows I do not know what she has been through, but she is exactly the type of person — exactly the particular person — we need to stay with our kids, because she loves them. Because she gets it. Because she teaches with everything she’s got, and it’s only in losing your life that you can find it.

At least, I know many of her kids have found it.

Or maybe I feel so strongly about this because I need to believe that it is possible to stay, even under such circumstances.

If teaching drives away all of us who love our kids, by breaking our hearts and breaking our spirits, who will be left?

The teachers that don’t care enough for the injustice of our country’s school systems to affect them? The teachers that don’t try hard enough so that the job seems like the stereotypical “Christmas breaks” and “summers off” vacation? The teachers who print out worksheets every day and show movies so they don’t have to deal with the real intellectual and emotional challenge of encountering young human souls?

Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever. Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds.

But we need more teachers like this wonderful young woman who has given the last five years of her life to a seemingly “lost cause” — perhaps it is, indeed, lost for all practical purposes.

A wise lady once told me, “In every crucifixion there is a resurrection.”

Perhaps we are not going to see any clear resurrection for ourselves here.

But even for the lost causes, the most horrific crucifixions, I believe in the parable of the seed that falls to the earth and dies.

Jimmy Stewart’s character says, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ (Source. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”)

It’s worth watching the whole scene. I hope the author of “Love, Teach,” watches this:

Also, this, by Emily Genser at the Huffington Post: “Don’t You Quit”

UPDATE:

The Washington Post is publishing Love, Teach’s beautiful reflection here.

Anyone who loves kids and education needs to read it.

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On Teaching Poetry, Part II

I taught my annual poetry unit at the beginning of the semester and have already blogged a little about it here.  In that post I posted these key questions:

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how. How can we help our kids get inside a poem? How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language? How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it? (“On Teaching Poetry“)

A lot of teachers take one of two conventional (and mistaken) approaches: have the students read easy, crappy poems, or have them read classical poems and force them to try to get some meaning out of it. I have chosen another approach.

Being a UD grad, I’m all about the Western Tradition and legit poetry. But I’m also all about respecting where my kids are and acknowledging the fact that, for most of them, poetry is pretty boring. So instead of teaching what a poem is about or even why a poet wrote it, I teach them to ask the question how.

The first thing the kids need to learn when encountering poetry is the difference between tone and mood. Why? Because recognizing tone and mood in conversation, in writing, in emails, in text messages, in any type of human communication is a basic life skill. If you can’t identify tone and mood, then you miss out on 99% of the meaning in any given sentence you read.

Tone is how the speaker feels about what he is saying. It is his attitude.

Mood is how the speaker is trying to make the audience feel about what he is saying.

I ask them, “Have you ever met someone who has a hard time picking up on sarcasm?”

They always say yes. “That person, who cannot pick up on a sarcastic tone, unfortunately misses most of the meaning.”

I then give a real life example. I walk up to Charlie and I say with sincerity and a bright smile, “Hey, Charlie, you did a great job in class today!”

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh.. good, miss,” he replies.

“Great. Because I used a sincere or kind tone, I created a positive or happy mood in Charlie. But I could easily say the exact same words and create a totally different meaning.”

I walk up to Charlie again, this time with a bored and annoyed expression on my face. “Hey, Charlie. You did a great job in class today.” I make the sarcasm as evident as possible.

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh… kinda bad, actually…”

“Exactly. This time I used a sarcastic tone and that created a hurt or slightly depressed mood.”

So then we start to apply those terms to poems – usually simple Billy Collins poems first. Ask questions like, “Okay, what do you think the speaker’s tone is in stanza 1 – positive or negative? What words or images made you say that?”

Starting with the generic terms positive or negative really helps the kids at first. After they determine if the tone is positive or negative, they can more easily find a stronger tone word like “sad” or “furious” or “calm”.

So then we work on what I call “Tone and Mood Maps.” Basically, the kids get a poem with plenty of space in the margins. Then we go through the  poem stanza by stanza and put a plus sign + or minus sign – next to each stanza. Then, once we have mapped out basic positives and negatives, then we go back through the poem again and try to determine a tone word and a mood word for each stanza. Like so:

One of my students’ annotations. Notice the plus and minus signs on the left. Then the tone words on the left of each stanza, and the mood words on the right.

The next step is to put them in the place of the poet. Oftentimes students take for granted how difficult it is to write a poem. So I have them write their own “Introduction to Poetry” modeled after Billy Collins’ poem of the same name. The above picture shows one of these poems that was afterwards annotated by the student for tone and mood. Here is another one. The poem is worth reading!

photo-2

Again, notice the + and – signs, tone words on the left and the mood words on the right.

And I really like the way this student models her poem after both Collins’ and Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: photo-3

Approaching poetry this way changes the question from what does a poem mean to how does a poem mean.

Which, in the end, is a much more meaningful question. It prevents the student from making assumptions about the poet’s intent, and instead forces him to watch what the poet actually does in the poem.

Even if I present them with (gasp!) a real poem, they can find a way into the poem through the tone and mood. Like this student, who wrote admirably about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Here’s his second body paragraph:

Throughout the second and third stanzas of the poem, Frost tells of many similarities between the two roads. However, he twists and controls language in these stanzas using an appealing tone to help the speaker convince the readers that the second road was the correct one to choose and kindle in them a desire for it. After looking at one road for a while, the speaker “took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear,/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (6-10). This is what makes this poem difficult to understand. As a result of the appealing tone that the speaker uses, the reader is led to experience an intrigued mood and get caught up in the appeal of the second path, but forget that it is the same as the first.

I love that this kid is comfortable admitting that this poem is “difficult to understand”. He doesn’t pretend to get the whole thing and turn it to some carpe diem cliche, like most people do when they read Frosts’ poem. Instead, he just describes how the poem means by analyzing the tone and the mood.

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