End-of-Course Reverie

End-of-Course Reverie

I watch my students

click and decide

if I am a good teacher.

My voice is now silent,

so I try to stir them using only my mind

(but I don’t see anything happening).

I think about what I did

and what I didn’t

and wish I had a few do-overs

until my aching head

reminds me what a bad idea

that would be.

So I tell myself

“It’ll be alright–

or if not, it doesn’t matter (eternally).”

But unfortunately,

I don’t really listen to myself

any better than my students do.

So it comes down to the fruits of a thousand hours,

being placed in four bins to produce one number.

Pretty coarsely-weighed for so dear a harvest.

WDS 4/20/2013

and we’re off

First day of school:

six classes, all with friendly, bright, decent kids
good, trustworthy colleagues all around
no big mistakes yet to have to overcome
encouraged but still really tired

I’m lucky to get to teach and especially to get to teach at Willard. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m teaching the best kids in the school. What’s crazy is how hard it still feels to do this even though I have nearly everything lined up in my favor. I can’t imagine what so many teachers feel like with the conditions they work under.

My prayer is that all of us in the school biz remember what a privilege it is to be a part of our students’ lives, have resilience when the inevitable bumps (or worse) occur, and pause in the busyness (at best) or chaos (at worst) to recognize the perfect moment when it occurs (à la Spalding Gray). Grace and Peace.

the other half of the book

I am going to reveal a little-known trade secret about the modern high school Biology class — we no longer do most of the things that defined the experience for last hundred years or so.

1. We only teach half of the textbook (more about this in a minute).

2. We don’t do dissection — no frogs, no grasshoppers, no earthworms. I blame the usual suspects — time, cost, delicate sensibilities. It’s too bad — we probably shouldn’t underestimate how many scientists and doctors were initially drawn to the macabre thrill of peering into the innards of various critters.

3. We don’t go on field trips. Again the usual suspects — time, cost, delicate sensibilities.

4. We don’t study zoology or botany. Really. This one is harder to parse — maybe it’s just a logistical issue (one needs lots of stuff to do this properly), but frankly, classroom management of students who never learned good habits of working in the lab also comes into play. I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, that today’s students who grew up in schools saturated with the dogma of “collaborative learning” (aka “group work”) work less effectively than students from previous eras who primarily learned to work by themselves, and then later had opportunities to work together in a lab setting.

This year, I’m determined to begin to walk my way back toward a more balanced approach. My Honors Biology classes are going to rediscover the second half of our biology textbook — the chapters dealing with prokaryote, protist, animal and plant characteristics. Without real plants and critters I’m going to have to find interesting pictures and videos to supplement our text. It won’t be anywhere near ideal, but I hope it begins a process of moving back toward biology as a living, breathing thing — the very thing that captivated me (and so many others) when I was a young student.

this school year’s Moleskine notebooks

I love Moleskine notebooks — specifically, medium-sized, kraft paper covered, grid-ruled Moleskine notebooks. As an organizationally-challenged person, these notebooks have, over the last two years, been the only thing standing between me and the entropy abyss. So today I went to the bookstore and purchased this year’s supply. Since I had a lot of work to do, I obviously felt compelled to decorate my new notebooks instead. I opted for a homage to Mondrian, a cube optical illusion and a fibonacci spiral (it’s cool that Moleskine notebooks are almost a perfect golden rectangle). I thought they turned out pretty well and I didn’t have to do any work. Win, win.

bird by bird — Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

chemistry experiments

Low-pressure extraction of alkaloids from oxidized Coffea arabica seeds with an emulsified colloid of liquid butterfat globules dispersed within a water-based solution. Very successful experiment. I hope I can replicate this.

First trial of an experiment for Honors Biology. Students develop a standard curve of changes in mass of uncooked potato slices in response to various concentrations of solute (either salt or sugar). A little surprising that the change leveled off so much on the upper end of the salt concentration series. Any thoughts out there?

All in all a fun and easy experiment.

Teacher Man – by Frank McCourt

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

— Frank McCourt, ‘Teacher Man’

Last night our book group discussed “Teacher Man”, by Frank McCourt. This is such an honest and perceptive book about teaching (which means it’s also insightful about students, schools, and learning in general). McCourt, who died in 2009, managed to achieve the Holy Grail of teaching — to be independent, successful and appreciated by students. If you teach, or just want to know what teachers are thinking, this is the book.

A Powerful Mission: Providence St. Mel School (Chicago)

Providence St. Mel School Mission Statement

At Providence St. Mel, we believe.
We believe in the creation of inspired lives
produced by the miracle of hard work.
We are not frightened by the challenges of reality, but believe that we can change our conception of this world and our place within it.
So we work, plan, build, and dream – in that order.
We believe that one must earn the right to dream.
Our talent, discipline, and integrity will be our contribution to a new world.
Because we believe that we can take this place, this time, and this people, and make a better place, a better time, and a better people.
With God’s help, we will either find a way or make one.

I love the school I teach at, but we don’t have a mission. We have a mission statement, but that’s not the same thing. Before I’m done, I want to teach at a school like Providence St. Mel. I want to teach kids who have a hunger for something better, a discomfort with the ordinary and an impatience to get where they’re going. I want all of that for me, too.

We have all of these currents pushing and pulling us toward one reform or another, yet I’m not persuaded that any of them are headed where we need to go, or for that matter, are strong enough to move us out of the becalmed center channel.

Tomorrow, I start again. May I see my mission clearly, teach energetically and skillfully, and serve graciously.

exceeding my limits, or, finding meaning in chaos

I had an unusually chaotic, frustrating, but strangely hopeful day. Teachers are like jugglers, we train and learn and gradually increase the number of balls we can keep in the air. Today, I exceeded my limit — just too many big, medium and small tasks for a someone whose comfort zone is “one thing at a time.” Like the juggler, when my limit exceeded my ability, not one, but all the balls hit the floor.

I can accept that I’m not able to do some things very well — I’ve managed to avoid a large number of these (having a generous and talented wife helps me get away with it). What I hate is doing things badly. I felt that today. I know some of my teaching was not too great and that I had a student who needed and wanted help who got lost in the shuffle. That makes me feel lousy.

But then, amidst the chaos, I had two separate, brief encounters with students whose names I do not know that affected me and have given me hope and maybe even some insight. First, in my tutoring section, which consists of students with grades just above or just below the failing line, I compressed much of a two-class-period lecture into a desperate 10 minute guerilla cram before tomorrow’s Biology Quiz. I made some offhand comment about that not being any way to teach when this interesting, but edgy, young woman said, “Yeah, but you’re good at it.” If you’ve ever taught, you know how rare that kind of casual generosity is. She unknowingly brought me back to life. Next, after school I wandered into the library looking for a colleague when I encountered a student needing help in the class I teach (but not my section). For a brief period of maybe 7 or 8 minutes, he totally, completely, perfectly listened, trusted and learned. I have not witnessed an effort like that from any student (including the best students in the school that I’m lucky enough to teach) in a very long time. These two encounters, both with students who would be considered marginal, at best, were what I think teachers are looking for. I know it’s what I’m looking for. I don’t think the teacher-haters have any idea how much we want authentic teacher/student experiences and what we would be willing to do for students who really desire to learn. We don’t only care about highly-talented, well-dressed, polite kids who comfortably resemble who we think we are — we want students to learn. So much of the know-it-all propaganda of the how-to-fix-education industry talks about motivating students as if were making adjustments on a passive doo-dad. In addition to being completely wrong, this diminishes the students who are, after all, human beings with free will.

My version of reality until further notice is this — teaching and learning requires the following from both parties: Valuing what is being transferred, respecting one another as human beings, reaching out before knowing your efforts will be reciprocated, and a sacrifice of time and energy.

While I can’t prove it, I believe my two brief encounters were gifts of grace and beauty from God. I think I’m a little different teacher than I was when I woke up this morning. Tomorrow, I’m going to figure out those two kids’ names.