Defining Individuality

As I planned to teach John Steinbeck’s novella, “Of Mice and Men”, this year, I struggled with how to approach the desperate, devastating and disgusting story therein. A story in which, to his credit, Steinbeck accurately depicts the struggle of human kindness and cruelty, and the thin, often broken, line that runs between the two. I am not a Steinbeck fan (I know. How can I even claim to be Californian?!), but I do recognize his genius ability to transport a reader directly into the real life of people living in the Great Depression. I do value this in his writing, because I think it absolutely necessary that people understand not only the world around them and the people with whom they will come into contact, but also have at least the ability to sympathetically and with real empathy connect with the stories of people throughout time. Even with this admission, I struggled to plan on teaching this novella to 14-year-old kids who, up to this point in their lives, might assume a happy ending to a novel and/or may have experienced loss or grief which the novel might stir up within them. Thank goodness for teachers who have come before me. I found on the New York Times Teaching Blog a Text to Text lesson focused on the friendship themes in “Of Mice and Men” and how a student might compare those themes to his/her own life.

Through this tool, I was able to teach “Of Mice and Men” with a focus on the theme of friendship and more specifically, as proposed in Todd May’s article “Friendship in a Time of Economics”, the economic value our current society places on friendship. As I annotated and read, however, the truth of May’s article was so convincing that I, after drawing circles around phrases, hearts and exclamation points in the margins, and attempting to write a little of my own thoughts on friendship. I placed all of my notes and pens on the empty passenger seat of my car. To reassure you, the car was’t moving, by the way -I was just taking advantage of the hour that my son spends at jazz band once a week and working in the cul-d-sac in my car) In any case, I put all of my lesson planning down and called my good friend.  A true friend, according to the article, with whom I hadn’t actually spoken since January.  It was such a restful and renewing conversation. We laughed and shared what is happening in our lives right now and made some near future plans.  Just a short phone call allowed some frenetic energy to just let go – made me pause and ask myself, why do we make ourselves – as a society/culture – too busy to enjoy each other’s company; to enjoy life as individuals in community.

Fast forward a month and I have read the Todd May article 6 more times (2 times in each English 9 class), and while the need to stop and recognize our true friendships is still clear, his identification of friendship in economic terms becomes what I can’t stop thinking about.  As I question not only our economy of friendship, I apply the same idea to the system of education in general…

…My entire mind seems wrapped lately in the question of education. Why we do education? Why it is done the way we do and is it achieving the end hoped for.  After my last two posts on this subject, I have been writing back and forth with a friend who has also questioned public education and after participating as an educator is now homeschooling her brood. She made a point about the goals of standardized education which communicated beautifully my up til then, only visceral reaction to the system as of late.  She claimed that while attempting to achieve an education that generates responsible and independent thinkers, the standardized system is completely undermining it’s own goals.  I wholeheartedly agree, individuality cannot be standardized – learning targets and goals and standards within a system define what a person “should” know or learn or be – and this is not individuality.

Our current education system has economized education, placing a high value on some students and a low value on others.  Not only students are assigned economic values, but the education they are receiving is economized.  Some subjects promise more success in college, some in career, the overall message that students and teachers receive is that while there are many pathways to achieving the standardized goals, the goals are the same for everyone, and if you are not attempting to reach those goals, you are considered “less than”.  This rhetoric of “not enough” exists in every aspect of our lives, and I propose that we change the rhetoric.  Let’s be the rebels we always relate to in the stories and movie – innovative in non-conformist ways. Self-reflective and analytical thinkers who are willing to engage in meaningful discussions about the future building of the culture we create and subsequently livein.

Centralized, standardized systems assume that people cannot actually take care of themselves.  These assume that there is one way to live a life, OR that if there are multiple ways, some ways/systems/people are better than others. This assumption automatically places an economic value on human existence; it creates an idea spread so adeptly that the people honestly believe that in order to be successful, a person must conform to the set-up systems – No rebellion, but more importantly, no creativity. This promotes the system and creates a false sense of communal conformity while smothering actual human creativity , growth, innovation, and the ability overall to transform a garden into a growing and changing city.

So, what are our goals as educators, as parents, as community members? Let’s work on some real goals; goals which allow real innovation and creativity rather than stifle them and conform them to an acceptable mold.

Steinbeck draws the broken line between kindness and human cruelty, and perhaps our current system attempts to draw a line between creativity for human flourishing and creativity which degrades humanity; but I propose that the line needs some erasing and restructuring and that rather than focusing on individualized success and responsibility, we begin to focus on an individuals ability to create and change a culture.

 

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“The Woods Are Lovely”

….Dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep.
 I made a promise to my son the other night.
He is struggling so much with 9th grade (still junior high here).  The tasks in class and assigned for home seem pointless, repetitive, and not at all related to anything he is in the least bit interested. Part of these feelings obviously stem from the fact that he is 14 and doesn’t know what he is interested in (forced societal stereotype…), part from his want to really do nothing but sleep and play video games (I think perhaps teenagers are a bit like cats – super super tired and really really jumpy all at once). Alternately, could his want for other outlets for creativity stem from there being absolutely no real time for him in his daily routine to explore any activity well, let alone creatively?  After 7 hours of school and 2 hours of homework, he has roughly 2-3 hours a day to eat, engage in some sort of commute to and from school/home, do some slight amount of chores like put the dishes or his laundry away, and perhaps play a little trumpet sometimes before getting things ready for the next day. I’d argue that within his extremely limited free time, video games provide the social interactions wanted and no longer provided by our culture of busy that focuses on predefined, individualized success.
Only interested in sleep and video games? Of course video games are appealing – these are games that require very little set up, have instant connection to other humans also playing, have easy to learn story lines and/or tasks that are productive in that they provide instant gratification to the player. The goal is to beat the boss; you beat the boss;  another boss appears, and some cool armor that you have some ability to customize. All of this within 5 minutes of game time. These games provide a creative social outlet in a world where texting has taken over real life friend communication, and his friends are too overwhelmed with homework, school, tutoring, music, and/or sports to have any time to engage creatively face to face.
This idea about video games is a bit of an epiphany for me, really; any one of my family members will tell you that I am the worst advocate of video games in the world – I pretty much remind all of my kids and maybe sometimes my husband, to turn them off and actually be a part of the real world.  It is actually only this moment, as I total the sum of hours available to my kids in a day, do I understand the games. I used to hide in the sycamore tree and read a book, they put on headphones and shoot some zombies, comme ci, comme ça.
In any case, I made my son a promise. I see him struggle with school and I know that rather than gaining vast amounts of access to knowledge, his relationship to school is actively shutting down his creative resources, his want to learn, and his ability to care about something for longer than an hour (bell schedule, don’t get me started). I told him that I felt his frustration and apologized that I need to work right now to pay off loans (otherwise perhaps home-school/un-school would be an option). I then promised that while it won’t effect him in this very moment, I will do everything within my power to change the education experience of students within my reach and perhaps I could extend that reach in a way that it touches his education as well.
A revolution perhaps – reform just ain’t cutting it.
My last post, “Edumacation”, attempted to throw out many of the thoughts and questions that I have been wrestling with over the last year or so. Some of these struggles are due to my experience as a teacher, some because of my experience as a mother who feels helpless to change the public education experience of my kids. I did not expect to get any straightforward – fix-the-system, answers – but ah, the start of good conversations has now taken place.  Maybe these will prove productive, maybe futile, but we’ll never know if they never happen. I want to talk to other educators, parents, leaders, and find out what it is about education that we find so important that it is compulsory. 13 years of our lives – 13 very influential years of our lives – when we are growing and becoming who we will be in the world, we are most influenced daily by our time in school. What is the underlying goal – the societal importance, and are we even aware of what education should be providing vs. is actually providing for our children and what it is not?
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep*
poem excerpt – Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”

Edumacation

There is a question constantly swirling through my life.  Partially because I am a teacher, partially because I am a mother of school aged children, but I think most strongly from a soul wrenching call to action that I’m trying constantly to ignore because I feel so unable to answer.

I see the need for change, for reform, for redoing the system, but I don’t know where to even begin.

So, just to include others in the conversation, I really would love to know your experience, ideas and responses…comment or email or text me – you can try to call, but I usually don’t answer…I’m better with text and I apologize now for that -I am, however, also good at face to face conversation, so if you would rather words pass quickly rather than in text and want a coffee (wine) meeting to discuss, hit me up!

Here is what I am constantly asking and experiencing:

Why do we educate children in the way that we do?  For what purpose?  and do THEY know why?  To go to college?  To get a job? To be independent when we’re making them dependent on bells and grades and standards they must reach? Is it useful to create a miniature army of humans who will do anything and everything they’re told?  Is it necessary that a child, beginning at the age 5 and continuing until adulthood, be taught how to sit still and focus??  What are we raising them to do?!  Do I think education is important?  YES.  Do I think it is important to read and write and be able to pay attention to the world around ones self?  To understand mathematical equations and scientific facts as well as method?  To know human history and to be able to analytically take in information and form an opinion based on knowledge, understanding and experience? Yes, yes and yes!  But what I don’t understand, even now that I am perpetuating the system by participating in the teaching population, is how or if at all our current education system is doing that. Furthermore, how, if independent, responsible, logical, self and community aware adults are the goal of education, are we teachers supposed to be the people to impart this information?

For the last two years I have had class sizes near around 30 students but because of the way the schedule fell, that meant I had 90 kids.  This year, I have closer to 160 students –  3 different classes to prep for, and I am in contact with those students for at least 4-5 hours per week – nearly my full work day 3 out of 5 days a week – Besides showing up to teach them how to become analytical thinkers and responders – to become good communicators and healthy, culturally aware and knowledge seeking citizens, this means I show up to dances, to games, to after school activities to show that I care for their persons outside of their academic world. Besides the interactions, I have planning and grading and planning and grading and planning and grading…. which – in order to give useful feedback and actually encourage growth, I must do outside of my hours at school.

Now – this rant can come off as a complaint about my current situation, but that is not how I want this to be read.  The amazing staff and faculty that I work with are dedicated to providing a meaningful education experience for the students at the school, and for the most part the students are actually quite receptive and want to be educated…..

What I want my readers to read is this:

Teachers work upwards of 60-100 hours a week……sometimes more – in order to create spaces for students to understand their individual worth. These students – still children – are in no way shape or form related by blood lines to the teacher. How can we realistically sustain a system of education that requires this of our teachers and the families to which they belong? What needs to change and how do we go about changing well?

 

 

 

Literature Circles – a follow-up

Well friends, I don’t know about you but the last three weeks of school are difficult for me.  The students seem to feel that it is summer already and with the heat this week, I’m just about with them.

(books not pictured:  “13 Reasons Why” – Jay Asher and “Tex” – S.E. Hinton)

I wanted to write a quick post to follow up on the literature groups I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  I successfully pulled off the “Book Tasting” and assigned literature circles (2-5 students per group). The discussion groups went better than I originally hoped, though I still have not fully figured out how to engage the students in more in depth discussion than their original planned out answers.  Any ideas here?

What do I mean?  I mean that I scaffold-ed the discussion meetings by providing worksheets which assigned each member of the group a particular job for the meeting and had them “prepare” by completing the tasks on the sheet.

Ie: Discussion director had to come up with 3 questions to ask group and be ready to answer him/her self; Literary Luminary had to find 2 quotes they thought were important to the plot or interesting, or funny, etc…; Connector had to come up with ways the particular sections of the novel being discussed connected with the outside world and/or other literature or film… – You get the idea.

       

 

When the students came to the groups, they mostly read off of their sheets and did no further discussion beyond one sentence answers.

I attempted multiple mediums of observing the groups and therefore keeping them on task – None were flawless, but I learned A LOT.

The first meeting was somewhat floppy because I assumed the voice to text option in Google docs would be a great tool for recording and transcribing their conversations. However, I did not count on the fact that the students would be so very enthralled with the text being absolutely perfect, that their insistence on editing after speaking halted discussion.  For the following meeting, I had the students place an ipad or cell phone in the middle of the group and voice record the conversation – later uploading this to google classroom or emailing me the recording.  This worked the best.

The third meeting was conducted via google classroom in individualized discussion groups to which group members only had access to their assigned group.  This was a flop of a discussion because while they are not so comfortable discussing verbally, they seem even less comfortable posting and following a conversation via discussion comments.  This actually surprised me, I had supposed that because of the students’ constant social media presence, they might be rather versed in online comment centered discussion, but I think because it was focused on literature, they were at a loss of how to continue conversations.

The fourth meeting (there were 5 total), I had the class sit in a circle around a group as the group in the center discussed so that we could all observe different group dynamics and perhaps give advice/glean ideas.  Each group took a turn in the middle. This was fun for me – I had the students in the circle keep a running tab of how many times each group member spoke and at the end of the group discussion each student around the circle had to give a piece advice or say something they liked about what the group did.  If I could do this weekly or twice weekly, I think it could be a great learning experience; but only once, I feel like we just worked through a lot of kinks in understanding individual roles and keeping the flow of conversation was particularly more difficult for my already soft-spoken and shy students. Next year, I hope to do this more often, with more than just literature circles, I know that students benefit from observing the learning process of their peers as much as I benefit from understanding and learning from that process as well.

The fifth meeting, we returned to the groups recording and submitting discussions while I walked the room and contributed/prompted where necessary or fun.

Final projects in the literature circle needed to reflect each individual student’s understand of the novel read, therefore, each student was responsible for a onepager about their book.  I provided a list of items needed in the one pager, along with a rubric for how I would grade the onepager – we took an entire day to go through the directions for this during the first week of reading (we read the books for 3 weeks).  I think doing this first, was a bad idea – students for the most part did not pay enough attention to the instructions because they knew the project was at least two weeks off, and I had to repeat and re-reference directions multiple times during the last week.

Some turned out beautifully though, and I really do like the onepager as a summative assessment which shows how each individual understood, resonated with, or could synthesize the stories.

Overall, I am glad I attempted the literature circle. It was a great way to work through the issue of having class scheduling be a little wonky during SBAC testing, and having a timeline of 3 weeks really allowed me to focus the instruction and the students to be accountable not only to the timeline I had set, but the timeline each group set individually when given the planning calendar.  I have learned much and know that I will need to do more practice discussions before setting a class free to separated literature group discussion, whether that means that for an entire novel we discuss with a group at the center and make whole class observations, or if that means we read multiple short stories and practice the various roles and language that might be used in a book group – only time and planning shall tell.

This week we are finishing Robin Hood and relearning why parts of speech are important to understand when using vocabulary  – it’s going pretty well and while the language initially threw them, the students are now (at the last chapter) engrossed in Robin Hood of Sherwood Forrest. Whew!

How is the last push to the end going for you?

 

Wind and Webs – Trajectory and Tradition

Each year in my town, the spider webs let go and the citizens experience the somewhat horrifying tradition of removing spider webs from every outside surface.  Cars, clothing, outside furniture – you get the picture.   We are not quite there yet, but the crazy amount of warm wind we have been having inspired a little writing.  Therefore – to the muse of wind and webs, I dedicate this somewhat random post.  Enjoy.

….

My only goal was to get away.  To move somewhere with more culture; somewhere with opportunity – a bigger population and shiny shop windows. Theaters and sidewalks and people that never sleep, I had assumed life would just take off from there.  A jet plane ascending into cotton candy clouds, outlining my name in the steam trail.

Not until I was solidly on that plane did I realize there was no landing gear –  No seat belts, no clearly mapped out trajectory; only endless clouds and the need to avoid the flocks of geese who might take the whole crazy mission down.

Reflecting now, I think I’ve been trying in one way or another to turn this plane around for years.  Not the time or age, but perhaps place and culture. Because – when I close my eyes I expect to hear the deafening roar of crickets accompanied by the occasional bullfrog.  I expect to hear the wind and let my mind drift casually along with it’s steady swish.  To dream under the stars.

Instead I battle the pollen filled, hot breeze which blows so incessantly that it drowns out all sense.  Santa-Ana-ish, anything-could-happen, and it seems to as the days get longer and patience feels strained.  Everything but grace splutters and spits from ever passenger.

A spider web of sanity built structurally strong is jostled and jumbled into a mess of knots – tossed so constantly that I give up and just hold on for the ride.

Ears ringing, I close my eyes and instead of crickets, the metallic hum of the neighbor’s air conditioning overwhelms my ears – punctuated only by the high clip of the dogs down the street.

However, in moments of practiced peace, when I close my eyes I still imagine I see those stars and the mountains silhouetted.  Practice peace hard enough and the smell of dusty earth with a hint of spring water seems to play around my nostrils, reminding me that the pollen filled, anything-could-happen-and-does wind, might be the same that will pass through the mountains in my memory.

Lord, give me the strength to have patience.  To forgive the winds of crazy – literal and metaphorical – and to be grateful for each cloudy opportunity.  After all, that wind may be the only thing filling the space beneath this jet plane’s wings.

At least I’ve got a front row seat; and for sure the world is round.

Thank God for good company in this journey.

Goodnight and Amen.

Continuing to Classroom

2 days down….36 to go?

Tomorrow, in my classroom I will be hosting a book tasting. The purpose of this is so that the students can give a ranking to four books that they will ‘taste’ during the class period which will help me to organize them into literature circles.  I’m choosing to do literature circles during the two weeks of testing so that the various class times will not effect any individual class too much more than any other. The set up took nearly an hour today because I’m a little crazy about the organization of space (just ask the students, I move the tables around all the time).

Stealing ideas from multiple teacher/bloggers as well as from a few of the teaching books that I have shelved, I have set up my classroom to look like a restaurant and I will seat the students as they walk in.

The tables are set and I have their groups picked out so that when the students arrive at the door, I will play waiter/hostess and show them to their tables.  On the tables, there are menus which outline the plan for the day and also list the book possibilities along with the author.  I’m attaching a picture below.

I hope the students will have fun.  It’s a little difficult this time of year to know how to actually engage their confused adolescent minds which are so focused on anything besides what is happening in class.

Fun final picture – current classroom set-up and semi-update of varied/height – less formal seating:

My original plan to let students always choose their seats worked well until they really got to know each other; this took about 3 months. While this means I usually have assigned seating in my classroom, allowing them to choose originally gave me some good insight into where students were comfortable sitting and working, and with whom they seem to work the best.  I do allow them to choose seats occasionally (such as when I decide to move the classroom around right before they walk in and do not have time to make a seating chart) – and they have become accustomed to ‘treasuring’ those times and attempting to prolong them by becoming ultra engaged in posture if not attention so that they might glean a few extra days of chosen seating.  Maybe next year my capacity for chatter and attempt to become even more facilitator teacher will be more defined and students will be able to choose seating for longer.  We shall see….

This teaching thing is quite the work in progress.

 

He is Risen!

Again Lent has come to an end and I have been less intentional than planned.

I have no excuses.

The constant nagging at the back of my mind and heart – a nagging which seems to be a reminder to remember Jesus’ journey – has replaced all of my plans.  Sometimes I feel these naggings and feel guilty for my seeming inability to act upon them, but perhaps if I give myself a little grace, these reminders might actually be recognized as intention – a subconscious focus pushing through to my day to day. Reminders to journey with Jesus, to be like Him, and to live in constant thankfulness that I do not have to complete the journey toward death without resurrection because Jesus completed it first.

Instead of choosing some overarching focus and intentional practice this season of Lent, my practices and reminders (those nagging feelings) have becoming part of the small things I experience constantly in my day to day life.  Reminders to be thankful right alongside a deluge of struggle to practice a life of grace – to reach out in peace before walls of misunderstanding rise up, to cry for the sorrows of others, for the misdirection of nations, and the hopelessness of a world torn by avarice and war.

Following the journey of Jesus into the final days of Lent reminds me of the long-term and ever present reality that is human brokenness – of our inability to recognize perfection let alone achieve it  – of the repetitive nature of human greed.  And yet, I try to focus on the thankfulness – grateful for Love and Mercy and Grace – a hard earned Truth nearly always ignored or willfully unidentifiable.

Lenten and Ordinary small wonders – my reminders – Peace breaking Grace and vice-versa:

  • rain on the metal roof of the overhang out our window
  • warm clothes to keep out the cold
  • running shoes
  • bike paths
  • friends who love and support and cheer even when I’m running in circles to complete a marathon whose finish is unknown and ever moving – whose finish might be just another start
  • new, very old books
  • the sound of typing fingers
  • headphones and the click of the keyboard – and a voice that can’t stop humming along with the tune
  • squeaky violin strings
  • lost in the music and forgetting to strum the strings
  • pitch pipes
  • thoughtfulness and hard questions
  • community within community within community
  • an inability to separate life in sectors
  • baptism
  • roses
  • new and old lives
  • new notebooks
  • old notebooks
  • roses in the yard and on the table

and a thousand more reminders.

Risen Indeed.