Monday, February 04, 2008

Minds are like parachutes. They only function when open.

After sixteen years in my own classroom it is difficult to be substituting, because I am used to using every skill I have to reach students on a genuine level.

Last week, I was in a particularly difficult classroom with a group of seventh graders and we were reading about The Government of the USA. When we began discussing the section on the Bill of Rights I asked, “What are your rights?” Freedom of speech, freedom to go where you want to go were some responses. Then a boy who had been contentious said, “Have you ever been in the back of a police car?” I replied, “No.” He said, “I have. I’ve been read my rights!” I could see his anger. I said, “I haven’t, but my oldest son had that happen when he was a junior and it was devastating.” That is when the dialogue took off.

We started talking in a meaningful way. That classroom was dead quiet and the students were totally involved. Several other students shared personal stories of family or friends. This is the teachable moment. This is where a child makes a commitment to learn because it meaningful. I speak of this because the moment you truly invite children to the table, is the moment they become empowered. You get their respect by giving them your respect.

I was able to do this with fourth graders when I first began teaching. Every once in a while we would spend a period of time deep in this powerful dialogue, and it would build huge bonds within the group. You can build this type of learning into your curriculum through Socratic circles which allow for polite open end discussions; with the National History Day program which allows each student to choose what they will explore; through debate which requires students to respect both sides of the controversy; through project designed learning. When you codify the curriculum, when the curriculum is to be uniform by subject and grade level, you eliminate the opportunity for rich learning. Inspired teaching and inspired learning cannot blossom.

A case in point is the English Department Chairman who sees that the Five Paragraph essay format is the only way to write; she cannot see that when you are researching you do just the opposite; you’re seeking to pull out the most important ideas and details. You are analyzing. In research you run into many writing styles. Published writers rarely use the five paragraph essay format. Many essayists begin with exposition and finish the first paragraph with the main idea. This is reality.

I sat in a district meeting designing Key Result Tasks for social studies as my building’s representative. We were working off of the district writing rubric. I tried to explain that social studies writing is different, that events happen within a context. Basically, it took a sledgehammer to put in the context. In order to understand history, it has to be put in context. Ultimately the problem with dealing with the current district leadership comes down to the same thing. They do not deal with teachers in a respectful manner. Their “parachutes” are closed, their minds are closed. And this is what they bring to the table?

[Link to OSPI: Common Characteristics of High Performing Schools]


Editorial: Thank you to another guest contributor.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a thoughful and well written piece. I would offer that your appraisal of administration is unecessarily generous, though I do repect and agree with the point made.

I would also point out that the administration respects no one other than themselves and those who directly contribute to administrative propping.

Anonymous said...

That's because teachers are generally nice, caring people who try to not be judgmental. You can't be a good teacher if you are making judgments about your students: "Oh, this one has torn and ripped clothes, I don't need to teach that one."

That's also why teacher's unions are on the whimpy side.

Anonymous said...

My appraisal of the administration is more based on my 7 previous principals, people I worked with over a 25 year period of time. Not on the past 6-8.

Anonymous said...

Addressing 8:28 AM:

I am not curious about which site/s you have been assigned to. This is definately not my experieince with general teaching staff.

A custodian

Anonymous said...

Well, of course, I can point to certain exceptions to the "nice teacher" rule, too. It's part of why I left. Being hemmed in between two of the principal's "buds" and vulnerable to an attack from either or both of them over any and all issues was the highlight of my day.

For example, the time one of them sent me an e-mail criticizing me for allowing a student to respond orally rather than in written form. I was "enabling" the student to not improve in her written communication ability! No, actually, I was following the student's IEP which clearly stated that since she HAD trouble expressing herself in written form, asking questions orally was an acceptable accomodation to assess her understanding of my subject area information.

This was one of those Cuban-Missle-Crisis moments when I simply chose to ignore and not respond to the insulting treatment. There were a lot of those days; because certain members of the Mob had been given carte blanche in their treatment of me, there was really little that I could do about it. God knows, complaining to upper management didn't change anything, it just made it worse.