Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Puddle Jumping

After a week of being quickly herded from the safety of one dry building to another due to the rain, the boys were ready to stretch their legs and use their outside voices on Saturday morning.  We trekked across the street to the school playground with our gear -- a football, a baseball, a mitt, a skateboard and scooter.  But the truth is, we didn't need to bring a thing.  Scattered across the blacktop were perfect puddles begging the boys to indulge.

All week they had been told, and rightly so, "Stay out of the puddles!"  Chad has to make three trips a day to the school for drop-offs and pick-ups and trying to do that in the persistent rain with an almost-three-year-old in tow is not a challenge that needs escalation.  I echoed his position when I first saw Lucas headed for the puddles.  As parents we are often told of the great dangers in mixed messages.  If Dad says no, Mom must say no, too, to avoid decreasing Daddy's authority.  If a TV show is inappropriate to watch on Monday, it is inappropriate on Tuesday; otherwise, the expectations for our children are unclear.  If we say do not lie, then we cannot lie in front of our children and still expect them to adhere to our rules.   But this time, I broke the rules.  And really, I don't feel too badly about it.

In my classroom, I notice that one of the struggles students often have is knowing when they can break the rules.  I don't mean the "No gum in class" kind of rules; I mean the "Sentences do not begin with because" kind of rules.  I find that my students have been told so many times by so many people what they need to write, read, solve and produce, that eventually they became almost incapable of functioning without a mandate to do so. Writing assignments are the worst for producing this sort of anxiety in them.  How long should it be?  Can we use the word I?  Where does the thesis need to go?  How many examples should I give?  They often believe life would be so much easier if I provided a neat checklist that they could mark off as they went:  Thesis? Check!  500 words? Check? Eleven sentences in each paragraph? Check!

But real writing, and real life, does not always work that way.  One of the signs of a mature writer is knowing when certain practices are appropriate and when they are not.  Profanity may be acceptable, and even demanded, when crafting a short story featuring seedy characters.  It, most likely, is not as acceptable when writing a proposal for your employer.  One of the qualities of a mature human being is the ability to consider the possible impact of a particular action and then to determine whether or not the action is appropriate, necessary or permissible.

I want my students to go into the world, not hemmed in by rules and regulations, but confident in their own sense of discernment and determined values.  I want them to write with the same confidence, knowledgeable enough about writing conventions, audience, purpose and voice to be able to choose when to follow the "rules" and when to create their own.

I want the same for my sons.  Puddle jumping is not an absolutely negative activity.  In fact, it is one of those childhood pleasures most adults wish they had partaken in more often.  No, on the way to pick up your brother is not a good time to soak your feet and splash everything within three feet of you, including your daddy.  But a sunny, after-the-storm Saturday filled with nothing but time to waste -- perfect!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Beauty of Afterthoughts

I spend a lot of time thinking about things before they happen.  When I know I am going to talk with somebody, I hear the entire conversation over and over in my head.  Each morning as I drive to school, I envision the day's lesson plan from beginning to end multiple times.   I compose blog entries twenty times over in my mind before I even get to the keyboard.

Yesterday, I was headed to the front door when I decided to throw on a scarf for a bit of extra warmth.  I went to my closet and grabbed a handknit rainbow-colored scarf my aunt made for Michael when he was two.   It wasn't a very long scarf given that it had been made for a child, just enough to wrap around my neck once to protect me a bit from the sharp air.  Honestly, when I arrived at school, I almost took it off . But I didn't -- each time I glanced down and saw that splash of rainbow, I warmed at the memories of my little boy on Christmas morning playing outside with that scarf wrapped around him.

Every period that day at least one student complimented my scarf and several staff members did as well.  Each time I was able to share my story of Michael, his chunky body bundled up, his blonde curls poking out from under his beanie, and the rainbow scarf bright as his holiday spirit.   

Had I planned my accessorizing the way I normally do, I never would have chosen the rainbow scarf.  My plan would likely have included something much less folksy and more in line with what others would be wearing.  But then I would have missed out on all those opportunities to reminisce about my son who has grown well beyond those toddler days.  In the busyness of the day, finding time for memories is rare. 

Afterthoughts can come in so many forms -- a gift we buy spontaneously for a friend, a heartwarming PS at the end of an email, a word of encouragement as a student heads out the door.   Planning and thinking certainly have their value and I don't foresee myself giving up on either anytime soon, but I also want to be sure I see the beauty in the afterthoughts, those moments, words, actions that occur when thinking stops and feelings begin.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Process Over Product

When somebody asks me what I teach, sometimes I want to say, "People."  I know the question is usually referring to the subject matter or curriculum -- "Honors English I" or Romeo & Juliet are the expected responses.  I wonder if this is because in the day-to-day world of teaching we focus heavily on product, and the product that first comes to mind is not always the student.  We create lesson plans, then collect assignments; we tally points and track test scores, ultimately determining a final grade to print on a report card.   Ironically, we then get frustrated when our students become point-mongers and grade-grubbers rather than valuing their educational experience for how it develops them as human beings.

In AP English Literature this semester, I have been emphasizing process over product.  (Alabama football has been a daily topic of conversation in my home since August, so Coach Saban's coaching philosophy has obviously influenced me!)  I know that a grading system is necessary and that test scores aren't going to decrease in significance anytime soon, but can't we work toward success in those areas without making the class entirely consumed with them?

S. walked into class on Friday and said to me with sincerity, "I just have to say thank you for yesterday's class (when we had discussed some "great questions" raised in literature).  We never get the chance to contemplate some of these big ideas and it was nice to have some time to think and discuss issues that are at the center of our human lives."  I love teenagers, but more often than not, their worlds revolve around themselves.  I tell them this is natural and that they will grow out of it (I hope!).  So, when a student takes the time to thank a teacher for a day's activities which  revolved around thinking really hard about unanswerable questions, I had to take notice.  What made the impact?  Discussion is not new in my classroom. Sharing ideas in small group also occurs frequently.  So what was it that made a student actually demonstrate gratitude for time spent in my class?  And she was not the only enthusiastic one.  As I had traveled the room the day before and eavesdropped, I heard discussion after discussion that was questioning, insightful and, best of all, personally meaningful for the students.

I believe what has made the difference is changing our focus from the product to the process.  I am asking them to care about how they are learning and how they are thinking, asking them to be the one who takes an idea to the next level, to be the one who raises the inspiring question or makes the most insightful connection.  The focus has shifted from students completing assignment after assignment for me to students thinking for themselves. Students are not being assigned a particular set of chapters for reading; instead, they are reading at their own pace.  Students are in discussion groups with other students who are at the same place in the novel that they are -- no penalty or punishment for not being as far along as someone else.  Students are being asked to respond, react, reflect to their reading in authentic ways that make sense for them as individuals -- through charts or art or poetry.  I can see that when the students believe that what they think has value, they are willing to share, and they are willing to consider the ways that others think.  This becomes an environment rich for teaching -- minds open, hearts willing, souls stirred, curiosity peaked. 

I know not every day will be one of intellectual euphoria.  I know that there are still students in the class who are just putting in their time.  My optimism does not blind me to the realities of teaching 17-year-olds in a public school. However, I still believe a shift, however small, has occurred.  In the small world of C28, we are drifting away from amassing points in a gradebook; the points we are concerned with are the ones made in the texts we read, the discussions we have and the writings we craft. And through this focus on process, the product will be what we desire -- perhaps a fine grade in the course or a perceptive, engaging essay -- or, even better, a fine, perceptive, engaging person.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Blue Plate Moments

N. gave me the blue plate right after college.  We each had our little apartments and not nearly enough of what we needed to make a home.  Tight budgets and even tighter spaces meant we got by on very little.  When I opened my birthday gift that year and inside was the blue plate, I did think for just a moment that it was an odd present.  A plate?  Not a set of plates, but one single blue plate with a large yellow sunflower right in the center. "I saw it and it reminded me of you," she said, which is my very favorite thing to hear when I open a gift. It made me smile and it still does.

Fifteen years later, I have moved four times, married my best friend, had three children, taught more than a thousand teenagers at two different schools, and I still have my blue sunflower plate.  I am the only one in my family who eats from it.  I never decreed this or announced it as a household rule -- in fact, I don't think I have ever mentioned it at all -- but if the blue plate is clean, I am the one who uses it. My food always looks more delicious and mealtimes have a bit more joy on the nights I use my plate, much needed when I share the dinner table with boys who sometimes behave more like monkeys than children.  It may seem silly or inconsequential, but my blue plate makes me happy. It is my little reward at the end of the day, a dollop of evening sunshine.

Sunshine is certainly something we need!  It seems each day becomes crowded with bad news, gloomy forecasts and  plans gone awry.  At school, budget woes cause worries and we wonder what else can be cut.  In class, students may be unprepared, disengaged or defiant.  At home, tempers flare, toilets break, tantrums erupt.  If we let ourselves, we can be completely filled up with what is wrong.

Instead,  I try to seek out what is right.  A freshman smiling after reading his Cisneros-inspired vignette to the class.  A senior sharing news of her college acceptance, her voice giddy with pride and anticipation.  My almost three-year old asking me to marry him and my husband taking my hand in his while we sigh from exhaustion on the couch. Right now, the quiet that allows me to hear these words in my head and the Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Sorbet waiting for me in the freezer.

I  look for the blue-plate moments.  More often than not, they are sitting right there, just waiting for me to notice them.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Did You Get That On Film?

My mom called yesterday and told me that while re-storing her Christmas decorations in the garage she had come across some of my childhood toys and belongings.  "I found a diary of yours," she said quite casually.  Heart. Stopped.  Remember, this is the same woman who has told me to be careful about what I write more than she has told me any other piece of advice.  I have started and stopped so many different journals in my life that I have lost track of many of them. I always expect one to spring forth from a once-hidden nook and expose some wild secret.  Maybe that moment had arrived! But then, I breathed.  I am 36 years old, I thought.  I cannot be afraid of acknowledging who I have been.  Any diary she has found was from another life, one that has shaped me but no longer defines me.  And then she said, "I'm pretty sure you wrote it when you were in kindergarten."  Any lingering fears were now gone -- what could I have possibly written in kindergarten that I would be ashamed of my mother reading?

It actually was not the content that she was caught by, but the fact that at five years old I had kept a diary of legible, coherent entries at all.  "Who does that?" she exclaimed. 

Later in the evening, my husband and I watched a short documentary piece on Coach Nick Saban.  Any of you following Chad's blog know that he is an Alabama Crimson Tide fanatic and looking very much forward to attending Thursday's National Championship game, so any coverage associated with the team becomes mandatory viewing.  The documentary focused on Saban's childhood in Carolina, West Virginia, a town of 500.  It was a sweet piece on a coach often described as gruff or unfriendly.  The tenderness with which his hometown people spoke of him was sincere and let us see a different side of him.  One anecdote that stood out to me, though, was when Saban's childhood friend recalled a time when they were young and he came over to Saban's house.  He found Nick watching 8 mm film of a football game they'd played.  "Want to watch film with me?" young Nick asked his buddy.  Not exactly what kids usually want to spend their afternoons doing.  Unless , of course, watching film is what you are meant to do for the rest of your life.

On New Year's Eve, my family and I watched Travis Pastrana break the world record for jumping a car over 250 feet across the Long Beach Harbor. As we waited for the climactic moment to arrive, we were shown home videos of Travis as a boy, maybe four or five years old, taking off on a motorcycle.  Even at a very young age and well before he could even hope to have a license, Pastrana was already driving toward his future vocation.

No matter the vocation we choose, risks are involved.  Saban is about to coach the biggest game of the year in college football and every decision he makes will be scrutinized.  Travis Pastrana risks his life with the stunts that he performs and must find peace with his very possible demise each time he climbs onto a motorcycle or into a race car.  But when we see footage of them pursuing these dreams as young boys, we don't criticize their lack of sophistication or the mistakes they make. We don't wish they had stopped and turned their attention to other activities. We find the vision of a child engaged in what will be his life's work tender and heartwarming.

As a teacher, I am responsible for guiding young minds and hearts.  This is a risky endeavor at times.  When I comment on an essay or critique a presentation, how will my words impact my students? When I write and share my ideas in a forum like this, will it in anyway influence their perceptions of me? Their parents' perceptions?  My colleagues' perceptions? How much of myself can I reveal without making myself too vulnerable?  I am just beginning to let go of the writing I did in my younger days and not let the lessons learned in various stages in my life haunt the person I am now.  I am still trying to determine how I can pursue truth in my writing and maintain my identity and respect as a teacher.  But one thing I know for sure, even if my mom doesn't have it on film, I was writing my life even back in kindergarten and I cannot let a little apprehension keep me from the big game.