Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Waterworld and a good classroom are alike

"I have to be honest. After 17 years of teaching, I can't tell you how to teach. I can't even really describe what is the best way to do something." These are the words I wanted to say to our student teacher (ST) the other day. But I didn't say them. I mean, I kind of said them. But not really.
And of course, we all know what good teaching looks like. We can tell who the "good" teachers are and who the "bad" teachers are can't we? We knew when we were in school. You remember then? "Man, this teacher is bad..." we thought to ourselves. District administrators think they know who is good. They have these neat reports to go on. They have TEST SCORES for crying out loud. Parents surely know. They can see reports and TEST SCORES online and in the paper. Sometimes parents even complain about their kids' teachers to other parents. Surely we all know what good teaching looks and sounds like.
But ST and I were having a conversation and she was asking me what I would do if I were going to teach such and such lesson. And I wanted to tell her that whatever I said would and should make little difference to her. Because I can't tell HER how to teach. Because she is different than I am. She is busy finding a voice and a rhythm in the classroom. I have one. For better or for worse. So when she asks me how I would do something I try to give her some suggestions based on my experience. But they are merely suggestions. And when she asks how she should approach something, I usually say "However you want. Do whatever you want." And then she looks at me like she wants to kill me. I get it. I get that a lot.
So I was thinking about it just a little bit ago, trying to come up with some words of wisdom for ST. And that's when it hit me. Kevin Costner.
And it began to make sense. It's scary sometimes the way my brain works.
You remember that movie that Costner made back in the nineties called Waterworld? Well, Waterworld and a good classroom lesson have a lot in common. And I can sum it up in one word. Fluidity.
You see, there was a lot of water in that movie. It was a fluid environment. Always changing.
And a good classroom lesson? Led by a good teacher? That also has fluidity.
I've seen a lot of teachers over the years. Those teachers used a variety of methods in a variety of lessons. And the best teachers and the best lessons flowed. There was learning going on and the students were often caught up in the moment. Learning sometimes in spite of themselves. The lesson wasn't forced. It was fluid. Constantly changing but with some kind of internal rhythm.
So I can't really tell ST how to teach. I can only describe what it feels like when you see it done. I can't say "this will work for you." Everyone has a different style and good teachers have figured their style out. They know when to shift gears. They know when to apply pressure. They know when to coast for a bit. And good teachers also know when to abandon ship and try something else.
ST is doing a great job and I try to tell her and I try to help her when she needs help. But she has to figure out the fluidity of the lessons on her own. What works for me probably wouldn't work for her. So tomorrow I'm going to start calling her KC and she will continue to look at me like I'm crazy. But again, I'm used to that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Perils of Project Based Learning

Today, the staff of our school was having one of our first PLC meetings of the year. We were running through the business at hand, discussing some of the things that we have needed to get together and discuss. It was during this meeting that one of our new teachers, a lateral entry teacher, asked an innocent enough question. She asked simply, "I've got projects coming up next week and I was wondering if you guys would help me out by grading them in your classes, too?"
Now let me state a couple of things about our school before I go any further. We think of ourselves as a project based school. Our students are constantly working on projects and problems of some kind. We were featured in an ASCD production based on PBLs! Secondly, we just finished a round of projects with the freshmen where all the teachers who taught freshmen spent part of their day grading freshmen projects. Thirdly, I work with an awesome bunch of people who will do anything to help kids become better students. And finally, we the teachers, have great autonomy at our school when it comes to curriculum and how we do things in our classes. But back to my story.
I watched the reactions of the rest of my colleagues in that office when our new teacher asked the question. I watched their reactions and I know what they were thinking. You see, I know, because I was thinking the same thing. I was thinking- "Why do I need to give up more time in my class? I can barely get through all I have to do now. Why would I want to spend another day on projects?" I watched those thoughts ripple across the office in the body language and facial expressions of the other teachers. I watched it, I thought it, and then I paused and thought about it.
Where did this feeling come from? Why was my immediate knee-jerk reaction to scream foul and begin to think about lost time? Well, I suspect that for each of us it might have been something different. For me, it was the years and years of trying to squeeze an impossible amount of US History into a ridiculously finite amount of classroom instruction time. Coupled with the fact that US History was a high-stakes End of Course testing area where the results would be splashed on webpages, newspapers, and government reports. Or maybe it is that belief that all of us have that our subject is so important that there is no way, under any circumstances, we would give up time away from our state curriculum. Or maybe it is the desire to protect our own projects and our own pacing. Maybe it's just the stress we feel to teach, to the best of our ability our subject matter day in and day out. Whatever it was. I felt it and I saw it. And then something funny happened.
I thought to myself. Screw it. It's one day. We'll figure it out. And I watched as the other teachers began to do the same thing. My colleagues began to think about helping out too. You could see it again. Visibly. People who were quiet and tense became people who were not. They had all decided to help out. All this, of course, took place in just a few seconds. I don't even know if other people noticed. But I did. I noticed and spoke to me about many things but most importantly about the cool people I work with. We have all been programmed by time on task, end of course tests, ap tests, curriculum standards, pacing guides, etc... and for just a second all of that won. But then it didn't. Everyone started to talk about it and we all agreed that we could help out the new teacher. You know, the one who hadn't been programmed like we had. The lateral entry teacher. The one who asked an innocent question and expected nothing but her compatriots to help her out. And we will. Because projects are important to us. And today, maybe just for a second, we realized that and decided to take a stand for something other than quantitative testing.
And it just reinforced what I already know.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

return to the world of blogging and how candy can save us all

try not to pass out from the shock. it's a blog update. of course, the passing out would require that someone was actually reading this blog at some point. i imagine you all eagerly checking lunchbyteblog every day, anxiously waiting another post. you must be forlorn by now. resigned to the fact that this blog has become something promised but never delivered upon. i follow in the footsteps of chinese democracy, duke nukem forever, and indiana jones and the crystal skull. hopefully though, this update won't suck as much as those bits of vaporware when they were finally and sadly released.
what makes the long hiatus all the more confusing is that, for the longest time, i have considered myself a writer. i spent time in college studying writing. i wrote for the college paper. i have, over the years, written thousands of poems and have written quite a few in the time spent away from this blog. but i have written nary an update.
that changes today.
for my "return to the world of blogging" post, i would like to talk about candy. yes, candy. you see there's a big ol' honkin bag of assorted candies in the office area of our school. i discovered it today. and there are things in this huge bag called 'sassy tarts' that look and taste suspiciously like sweet tarts. except they're not sweet. they're sassy.
so i discovered these sassy tarts during lunch and proceeded to make my way back into the office several times during the afternoon to eat a few more of these sassy tarts. they were sweet and i was sassy and all was right with the world.
until the end of the day.
that's when i went looking for another package of sassy tarts and found out that they had all disappeared. gone. there were none left. zero. zilch. none.
now i am absolutely sure that i didn't eat all of them. but there were none to be found when i wanted more. i was crestfallen and dumbfounded. what had happened to the sassy tarts? where did they all go?
and then it hit me. someone else was eating the sassy tarts. someone else had been captivated by them. someone else was eating the candy and they liked it. someone else kept coming back for more. maybe several someone elses.
so then i wandered back to my classroom and began to have a conversation with the student teacher that had been assigned to our school this semester. she was worried about classroom management and she was wondering how to deal with a particular us history class. we discussed several strategies and i ended the discussion by telling her she had to find out what worked for her. what worked for me may not work for her. she had to find a way to deal with distractions that was true to herself and her way of thinking. then i reminded her about what had happened during her lesson today.
during parts of the lesson, some guys were joking around and she had to admonish them several times. they weren't being mean or really disrespectful. they just weren't all together with her. to be honest, they weren't really engaged. but she got their attention and gave them the assignment and they got to work. and then they were quiet. i pointed this out to her during the lesson. they were working and suddenly engaged. and when they were engaged, they were concentrating and into it. they liked it.
and then it struck me that engagement and candy were the same thing. this is what the kids had wandered into the room to find. they wanted the metaphorical sassy tarts. sure, there was a big honkin' bag of candy (ways to teach) out there but they didn't want those other pieces of candy (instructional strategies). those pieces of candy had no appeal to these students. they had tried them all before. what appealed to those students at that moment was something new and novel. the student teacher had stumbled onto what was going to engage them and in that moment had solved her discipline problems for the rest of the day. and if she can learn from that moment, maybe she has begun to solve them for the rest of her time with us.
engagement equals candy. and students will keep coming back for more if we can only get them hooked in the first place.

ps. the student teacher is doing a fine job. we all struggle at times with certain classes. she is learning how to "do" this teaching thing. so are we all.