Reading the room

   Master teachers, when mentoring their newest crop, always zoom in on the power of reading and reacting to the energy levels of the classroom. As a teacher, you have a great deal of control over the students’ energy levels. When it’s low, it’s a good idea to get students to move around and do group activities. When it’s too high, the best action is to dim one light and have students write independently.

   A single day of this reading in action was so memorable that it ingrained this lesson in me forever.

   As students were walking into their math readiness class at Claremont High, my master teacher noticed one of the tall, grungy-haired boys was carrying a ping pong paddle and a ball. She challenged him to a game. If he won, the class would play a game instead of completing the lesson for the day and they would have no homework. If she won, the class would continue like normal.

   Every student was on board, as shown by how they rearranged two desks into a pseudo-table and cleared the chairs in less than a minute. The gap between the desks marked an invisible net line. All of us, save the teacher and student, crowded around to see the action play by play. Both players showed a high level of skill; my master teacher was proving her talent. It was a race to see who would get to five points first. At the end of it, the teacher lost by a single point! The kids rejoiced and for the rest of the period they played a math review game- the classic one where teams of students compete to solve the most problems correctly.

   After the class ended, my master teacher came up to me and said, “If you want to know why I did that, it was because I wanted to bring these students some joy into their lives. Since I know them so personally, I know they’ve been dealing with a lot lately, like multiple deaths and illnesses. I lost on purpose, but I wanted them to feel like they had earned that time. And because we played the math review game, they were still learning for the day.”

   As a teacher, it is important to get a sense of the room, have a bag of on-the-spot teaching strategies, and be able to adjust your day as needed.

What happens when you let students and teachers be free?

Lately, there has been a switch from English classes focused on critical readings, mini-lessons and writing workshops to standardized composition courses.

My latest visit with my former English teacher left me with a palatable sense that he feels his freedom is gone and he’s now trapped. The times when he would scour first his home library and then the photocopy machine are now over.

He used to spend hours pouring over what we should read, what we would gleam from the most. The winners would end up being in a far range, stretching from Zora Neale Hurston to the Federalist Papers and the more modern Malcom Gladwell. All of them have been replaced with a binder that lays by itself in the corner of the classroom: the 2017-2018 CSU developed English composition curriculum. The binder (besides the required books if there are any) contains the master copy of the year’s worth of material he is required to teach, along with the writing assignments.

As was promised to him, he is now free from having to lesson plan, free from the scramble over what to teach. But to my former teacher, that freedom comes at the price of imprisoning and atrophying his mind.

Back in my neck of the woods, pressure has been underway to move in the same direction. From what I’ve overheard in the hallway, the Wonders literacy program constantly approaches the school’s administrators to convince them to adopt their system. As for now, the answer back has been “No!” (as long as the test scores stay good). The teachers, and particularly this one I work with, believe in a more open-ended approach. The teacher spends about 10 minutes talking on say, how to add more action to a story, and then lets students work on writing while choosing three a day to conference with.

I am here to show you what happens when students are allowed to express themselves freely. The student I support struggles in writing precisely because she can’t take to directions often. Last year’s struggle was when the prompt required her to write about a person she cared about. The assignment became a nightmare in the flesh, starting with her feeling overjoyed at being able to honor her mother, guilty from not remembering things about her, and anxious over trying to write about her in the most perfect way. This manifested itself in lots of tears, screaming and grabs at my body. In private I pleaded with her teacher to let her choose a different topic. She agreed, which meant she could write about an object she cared about: strawberries. This turned out well, and her success in this assignment allowed her to feel confident enough when it came to tougher prompts. When she was frustrated, I would point out that she did so well in the strawberries assignment so she could do well again.

This year, the teacher is even more free-form with the first writing assignment. For this narrative writing, the teacher was happy with her as long as her pen was moving. After multiple fantastical short stories, she picked one to make into a final draft. Below is her final product. She did not get any guidance from me sans capitalization and indentation. It comes not from a product of a scripted curriculum, but rather teacher-crafted lessons that taught her to write with feeling- to dig deeper and deeper within herself until she found the heart of her story.

Note: The name of the dog has been changed to further preserve anonymity.

Pearl is What!? O:

Vroommm! “How was your first day at school?”, my mom asked.

“Fine”, I said. When we got home, we went to the back door, we saw Pearl, my dog, being pulled by her leash!

“Oh no!”, my mom said. “Pearl is dead!”

“Pearl is what!?” I shrieked. “The door was opened!”, mom said, groaning. I was so angry I went into the house.

After a ton of talk and tears, I got some plastic bags so mom could carefully pick up Pearl´s stiff body. She got a shovel and started digging a hole in the front lawn. I played my tablet to snap out of it but I couldn´t!

I remember her tiny, just born. “Can we keep her?”, I asked.

“You can keep her when she´s a bit older.”, said mom. The sound of the crunching bag brought me back.

As mom patched up the hole, I put flowers and one of Pearl´s chew toys on the grave.

“She will be remembered forever”, I weeped [sic]. “It´s okay. Everything will be okay”, mom said. “you still have me.”.

I softly said, “I guess you´re right.”

❤ In memory of Pearl forever

[picture of dog and of author´s likeness, which she titled “Tiny Me”]

What is the foundation of your job?

It’s important to have existential crises sometimes. When authors come and use a sledgehammer on society’s institutions, it makes me wonder: What is the foundation for my work? What can be stripped from it and still be recognizable?

In The Trial, Franz Kafka presents us with a simple premise: What if someone got arrested without committing a crime? It goes further, picturing a bureaucracy of courts, officials and lawyers, busy droning away at their jobs. Doing what exactly? No one knows which law they are working to defend their client against. In addition, they, “were not moved simply by humanitarianism” and “lack contact with the common people” (117). Furthermore, their minds are “far from wishing to introduce or carry out any sort of improvement in the court system” (119).

So to recap, these lawyers work without an accusation, evidence, personality, humanitarianism or advocacy to make the system better. Kafka shows us that in this world, the only thing that keeps the lawyers useful are the personal contacts they have with the high officials, which they can bribe to let their clients breathe easier.

These literary thought experiments are useful because they make us question the essential components of our own professions. Stripped down from any context, my job might just sound like me giving out directions, awarding reward tokens, and deescalating triggering situations. With this information, I might realize I could infuse more purpose in my day to day with more instruction and life lessons. Or, I might see this as a blessing. Because my job isn’t always rigorous, it gives my brain extra time to think.

That’s obviously good for the future of this blog and for my work life, as it’s still in the construction phase.

 

Give it up for flexible seating!

It’s sometimes too easy to criticize the state of education and so I want to  mix things up with a positive educational trend: flexible seating. I’m writing on the subject in the hope that it becomes the norm rather than a novelty. The benefits I see to flexible seating come from my experience as a summer school teacher and my current job as an instructional assistant.

  1. They give the student responsibility over their actions.

When you send a student off to work on an assignment in flexible seating, it often becomes more challenging to circulate the classroom and check up on every student’s notebook to see if they are really writing. They will oftentimes pick to work in a cranny of the room where no matter how you stretch your neck,  you can’t see their page. Therefore, flexible seating is always a social contract. In return for students sitting wherever they want, teachers trust that they will do their work. If teachers notice there is no writing completed at the end of the session, the contract is broken and students have to sit at an assigned spot.

2. Groupings can form spontaneously based on needs.

Does a group of students want to debate in “hard mode”, tilting the scales 4 vs. 1? With flexible seating, they can do so easily by arranging their modular lounge seats in the desired configurations. Flexible seating also means that for an instructional assistant like myself, it is easy for me to pull multiple types of small groups even while the teacher pulls her own small group on the kidney table. And often times the arrangements are so outright cute! (See picture above.)

And most importantly,

   3. They allow students with special needs to be more included in the classroom.

Last year I was in a classroom without flexible seating and my assigned student would want to work on the carpet or under the table. When I talked to OT about this, she said that while its age-inappropriate, as long as she isn’t hurting anybody I should let her. Although my student was allowed to work out of her desk, she was also self-conscious about sticking out and being the “different” child. She would ask me, “Are they looking at me? Cause I’m pretty sure they are all looking at me.” Now that this year’s classroom has flexible seating, she now blends in with all the other kids, who all sit in different configurations. She can feel more comfortable in her work and her anxiety, already heightened because of her disability, has one less reason to flare up.