Saturday, November 28, 2009

Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones

Just finished this new title by Thomas Newkirk - in just two days. Like a long drink of water, it was just what I needed.
Chapter 8 reinforced for me that I am, all the way to the bones and beyond, a teacher. Duh, you say? Well, for some of us, teaching was not a first choice. Newkirk's chapter on what teachers need confirms the deep insecurity we all live with and either learn to accept or must ultimately flee for self-preservation. For someone who came to the party late, it is reaffirming to discover that all teachers struggle with regular failures: students they can't reach, lessons that fall flat, explanations that are met with by blank stares..... And then there is that inevitable class he describes so eloquently that, because of the time of day, or the season, no one appears to have the energy for learning, and the teacher feels mired in lethargy as well. No one is a superteacher 24-7.
In this chapter, Newkirk argues that we need each other - sharing and discussing student work - to bolster and support ourselves in manageable small community. And, we need to be around grown-ups!
Newkirk eschews the teacher hero we are all so familiar with in the movies. (This has been a recurring discussion at the Teacher Leaders Network). Those idealistic views of self-sacrificing wonders only undermine the confidence of teachers who regularly must face failure in their practice. And generally, teachers must deal with the fact of failure on their own, in isolation. He sees a necessity for teachers to share with their colleagues as the true hope for reform.
Ah, don't we all?
It's the old chestnut: Put two teachers together, and all they do is talk shop. Because: we are never allowed to do it "on the job." Because: no one else knows what it's like. Because: grown ups need grown ups. We can't subsist on a diet all children all the time. Because: we need the perspective of many eyes and many ears. Because: we may all survive to teach another day.
There are many other reasons to read Newkirk's book--I have several new ideas for informal writing with my students for instance. But if you have hit that low place in the school year, you will especially appreciate the chapter entitled "Finding a Language for Difficulty."
There is redemption in the confession of just how hard, and messy, and un-hollywood-like, this work can be.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Edublog Awards

I've been slow to the web 2.0 world. Once I considered myself a frontiersman, but that was way back in 1982 when personal computers arrived on the scene. (Something happened along the way. Aging, I think, and a calcification of my brain....)
But now that I am connected to Facebook, twitter, blogs, etc. etc. via my iphone, I can see how it is changing the landscape of our minds, our social world, and the entire future of education. (The kids I teach are always connected. I'm the newbie.)
So, it is my own education that I turn to now. The web has enlarged my faculty lounge and I can pick and choose who I wish to spend my free time with. The Edublogs Awards are out so I want to nominate those who have influenced me most of late:
  • Best Resource Sharing Blog has to be Jim Burke's English Companion Ning for its sheer scope and accessibility. You can find resources or just answers to questions. The best thing about open nings is the range of conversation. Not everyone has to agree with everyone else and its helpful to have push back on occasion (see below).
Two blogs I never miss are
  • Susan Graham's A Place at the Table. She always amazes me with her ability to see connections across all areas of life.
  • And the political savvy of Nancy Flanagan's Teacher in a Strange Land. Her antennae is always up on the politics of school policy and she knows all the players. Very informative. I nominate Susan for Best Teacher Blog and Nancy for Best Individual blog.
I still don't get around much in this cyberworld. I've never check the Daily Kos daily, like my husband does. I rarely twitter. After all, I've got a pretty intense day job. But I do worry about some of this new landscape. Are all of us just listening to like-minded people?

That can't be a good thing. When, on occasion, I have stumbled across posts and comments that are decidedly anti-teacher -- even violently hating teachers -- it is like a cold water bath on the tundra. I'm a bit unprepared. But they are out there and we can't all be talking in our own echo chamber all the time, no matter what our issue is.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back from 3-D World

This weekend I spent time with colleagues in real-world, real-time at the NWP conference with a quick sidetrip to the NCTE conference--both held in Philadelphia. I heard, via a bookseller at Heineman, that this was the highest attendance at an NCTE convention.
Could it be that we are all aware that this may be the last one for awhile? He didn't see it that way, but knowing what won't be available in funds next year, I was inclined to see it as a last gasp before a long dry spell.
Highlights of the meetings include my favorite: break-out sessions replete with mad brainstorming on how to improve sites, inspire kids, and fill up the energy reserve. Within minutes, table-mates act like old buddies and the ideas fly around. I have pages of notes.
Second only to that was hearing and meeting Billy Collins, a poet who has done much to build my confidence in teaching the genre I struggle with the most. His humor is what has given me entrée into a world I've never quite "gotten."
And finally was the connection with the three-dimensional versions of the online colleagues I have come to know through their writing: Claudia Swisher of Oklahoma, and the Wicked-bad Laurie Wasserman of Massachusetts. We've 'known' each other for five years. Still, a live meeting brings a dimension not found virtually. And then there's the moment of hesitation as you try to absorb the living breathing version that you've known only through deep, written conversations. There's a kind of, "Huh? What shall we talk about besides saving the world?"
These meetings are important, I realize every time I come back from one. Removing yourself from your daily context shifts the discussions. Seeing and working with others who have the same struggles is important.
I wonder who will be able to go next year....

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Trying to go Viral

This week I joined with fellow TLN'r Anthony Cody in sending an open letter to President Obama and Arne Duncan. Rather than reform through policymakers, we want reform through teacher voices.
I post the link so any fellow teachers can join their voices with others from around the country in getting lawmakers to heed the advice of career educators. We now have the electronic tools to make the classroom teachers' voice loom large. In addition, we are not affiliating ourselves with a union message - just talking about good practice and what works with our most struggling students. If you wish to have your voice included, please take a look at the site and add your vision.
From perusing some of the messages posted thus far, it is clear that accomplished teachers have a similar messages: Teaching is about building relationships, creating safety so young minds are willing to take risks, and running alongside our developing students rather than standing at the finish line keeping score.
From my own perspective, I see the creeping influence of organizations and companies that have profited from the last eight years of testing as a measure of what students are learning: the testing companies themselves. If teacher voices are to take center stage, we need to be aware that large corporations with money, resources, and the time to lobby and influence decision-making may be speaking in our stead. Though everyone wants accountability, a reliance on test scores is a dangerous, easy way out. In my experience, tests damage education by narrowing the scope of outcomes.
This is a national mistake.
Historically, America has led the world in innovative thinking. Narrowing our curriculum, and rewarding students for "think alike" or "think little" by testing through the narrow window represented in multiple-choice format and other standardized responses will damage our future prospects. Who will lead innovation? Only those who drop out or resist the current reforms.
Please take a moment to add your perspective.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The theory of everything and education

There's an exercise I do with the kids, and some adults too, to show how humans are programmed to make connections (like metaphors, analogies).
They write a random question on a card, turn the card over and pass it to a classmate. Without looking at the question, the classmate writes a statement that qualifies as an "answer." The card is then passed to a third student who must read the question and the answer and then write an explanation about how the answer is a legitimate response to the question.
Most of them can do it.
Most of the time the explanation is plausible.....and funny.
So, I shouldn't be surprised to discover on a recent adventure in retail that I can tie everything to education. Maybe I think about school too much.
Here's my story:
I went to a local department store to get a refill for my makeup base. They were out. I asked, "When will you have it?" Answer: "I don't know. We get shipments sometimes twice a week, but we never know what they'll send."
I didn't try to argue, but I knew one thing: I wouldn't be making the trip across town again to buy my makeup from them anymore.
Too bad.
This is the third time I have deliberately made a point of buying products I like locally, even though I know it would be more convenient to go online and have the product delivered.
I stopped buying my running shoes locally.
I stopped buying my perfume locally.
And now - no more Clinique.
I make an effort to shop in my hometown because I want the retailers to continue to thrive, and I want the sales tax to stay at home supporting my roads, police, and schools.
In these three instances, I've had to give up. I think the large corporations aren't making it easy for me to go to a brick-and-mortar.
Like the above incident, the local representatives are often clueless about the products they sell. Is this by design? (Hmmmm. Not to indulge in conspiracy theories, but what would be in it for the corporation? Oh. No middle man, same retail price - plus shipping - and I have to do the ordering.)
Who's getting my tax dollars?