Tag Archives: Teaching

If We Don’t Who Will

Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.

The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor?  The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear  a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.

They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw  through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.

Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,”  you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?”  Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words.  You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?

People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it.  It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?


Learning to Swim

She just needs to know that you are there. The worst thing that parents do is to project their own fear onto their kids and weigh them down with water wings or life jackets or other apparatus that force the kid to never feel comfortable in the water. Just be there. Let her float, let her swim, let her sink and struggle, but never panic, never show doubt or fear. Just be there and let her grab onto you when she needs to.

That advice was given to me a few years ago, by a friend and aquatic director in a pool in Phuket Thailand, as I was teaching my then two year old daughter Kaia how to swim. She was (is) a natural in the water. She has been in the water since she was four months old and could almost swim before she could walk.

With Kaia, just being there was simple. She never really clung to me, and before we knew it she was swimming. People would gawk and stare. You could hear them whispering to each other or speaking out loud, “Wow, she really loves the water.” There seemed to be very little teaching involved. She just learned how to swim. I took Mike’s advice. I let her know that there was nothing scary about the water and that she should always know that I was there. I encouraged her to take risks, all the while constantly whispering, “I got you sweety. You can do this. Don’t be afraid. Daddy is here.” I modeled behavior and set challenges we did together. She was a natural. It was easy.

Things have been a bit different with my second daughter Skye. We started her early as well, did everything the same. She has always loved the water too, but she has been much more cautious and slower to take the leap into the deep end. She has taken her time and spent more time holding on and clinging. She has gone through phases and had moments of doubt and regression. This week, however, she turned a major corner. She let go. She trusted. She swam.

What does this have to do with education and why am I writing about it here? For the last few days, I couldn’t help but think about the nature of teaching and learning. I think Mike’s advice about teaching children to swim can be applied to all kinds of learning:

  • Set challenges
  • Model behavior
  • Create environments where risks are encouraged and celebrated
  • Be supportive but not suffocating
  • Don’t establish a culture of reliance on unnecessary tools of support
  • Learn in the deep end

I can do this. This is how I teach. I get it. What I have learned working with Skye, however, is that this model is great when kids are naturals and don’t really need you. I am good at standing in the pool and telling kids to jump, when I know they will most likely swim. I can tell kids to take risks and write, take photos, sing songs, make films etc… when I know that they only need a little support, but what happens when they sink right away, or when they cling a little too tightly for a little too long? This is my weak spot.

The worst thing you can do is compare kids.  Kaia was swimming much sooner than this! Well, Skye is not Kaia, and no two kids are the same in our classrooms. We have to be able to understand how much support each child needs, and more importantly when how hard to push to instill confidence and not fear or failure.

I have learned a lot from my wife Mairin in this regard. She has been very patient and tender with Skye. It was in her arms that Skye finally let go and began to swim. I kept pushing Skye to let go and jump, only forcing her to pull back, but Mairin actually followed Mike’s advice and was simply there. She let Skye work in her own time. The support model does work. There is no need to panic and slap on the water wings, but sometimes it just takes longer and the level of being there needs to be more nurturing. You cannot force kids to let go, until they feel safe enough to swim. They need to know that the deep end is not any scarier than the shallow end when you can swim.

I should never have compared Skye to Kaia, just like we shouldn’t use “successful” kids in our classes as barometers for others. If they can swim, then send them off on other challenges. Let them work on strokes, let them practice diving whatever, but do not turn your back on the child who still needs you to be there when they jump. Let them grab your neck and feel their way in the water.

I cannot put into words how exciting it is to watch Skye’s excitement in the pool these last few days. I am literally watching her take bigger and bigger risks. She swims longer, grabs less tightly and smiles the entire time.

How do you deal with your pool? (classroom) Does this model work for you? Any advice?

ps: I guess this model is true for tech coaches and adult learners as well. How often do we ask teachers to simply jump in and swim, when they might need to just hold on for a bit longer?


Irrelevance is the Distraction

Really? Am I writing this post, my third one in a week, (News Alert Humans Like to Socialize and Shackled By Fear) about how computers and the Internet are ruining our children’s lives? More importantly are you reading it? Are we not past this topic yet? News flash! The use of technology, whatever that nebulous term even means, is changing the world and nowhere is this shift more apparent than in our schools. Why? Because most schools are based on antiquated models of what learning used to look like. We can bemoan the fact that students no longer want to sit dopey eyed in rows and hear us ramble on and on about whatever we feel is the most important thing in the world, but really wouldn’t it be better if we started to learn how to bridge our two worlds?

We’ve all heard it before; I am not saying anything new, which begs the question why am I writing this post? Why are you reading? Why can’t we seem to move forward? Why do we need a six-page New York Times article telling us that teenagers are distracted and Facebooking instead of reading novels?

My main gripe and perhaps the impetus of my new crusade is that I refuse to be polarized by the Ed-tech evangelists and the paranoid chalk and talk dinosaurs. I refuse to be forced to make a choice between the book and the computer, between the organic and the digital, between a walk in the woods and a flight through second life, between “real” and virtual life. I refuse to believe that there is only one way to reach young people today. I want to be able to reach them on their level by helping them understand identity creation and digital footprints, but I also want to reach them on their level by taking trips into nature where we write poetry about what we see. There is a middle ground between kids watching Brain Pop videos and creating Power Point videos no one will ever see and calling it integrated technology, and doing worksheets; it is called teaching. It is not the technology that is distracting kids, it is the irrelevance of what we are teaching them and our inability to make it meaningful. You can teach under a tree with a piece of chalk if the kids are buying what you are selling. How do you do that, you may ask? Well that is the million-dollar question isn’t it? I am still learning. That’s the beauty of teaching.

This latest article epitomizes this polarity. Offering examples of exasperated teachers who can’t get their students to read a book versus the cool guy teacher, who is teaching them how to use Pro-Tools, doesn’t help our understanding. We simply cannot make students, teachers, and parents choose between being connected and “tech savvy” and “Old School.” There has to be a middle ground. Where are the stories about teachers who have infused technology to make it ubiquitous like air, (Love that Chris Lehmann quote) so that students can use their talents and newly found knowledge to change the world? Where are the stories about teachers who with passion and love of literature have convinced seventh graders that the pages in a novel can be just as excited or more so that a Facebook feed. I mean really, do we have such little faith in literature that we think a text message is competing with John Steinbeck? If you believe in what you teach and you make it relevant for your students there is nothing they won’t stop doing to follow where you lead.

It is still possible to connect to students without bells and whistles and show them the beauty of well-written prose or the magic of science. I am tired of both sides thinking that students will only learn and stay engaged if the teacher offers a technological carrot. I can no longer, with a straight face say, “It is about the learning and not the tools.” I cannot say that teachers need to create and build meaningful relationships with their students based on trust and honesty if they want them to read on their own.

I could go on and on, but you have heard it all before, and unfortunately most people who will read this post already agree with me, so maybe this connected technology is not as great as it appears. Besides, I have a movie to start editing and I am feeling a bit distracted after reading a six-page article. Maybe, if I can get my work done in time I can actually curl up with a good book. It is really a collection of online columns. Does that count?


Why Me? IB

Trying to break into a high school English department with no experience is hard work. Make that department IB, and you might as well be trying to teach a PhD course on Proust. I understand that the English department is one of the most important components of a school, as it sets the backdrop for literacy, which let’s face, determines success for most students in History, Science, and even Maths. I also try to be a realist and see it from the director or principal’s point of view that schools get good results working the way they do. Good IB results are what keep the wheels turning academically and financially. Taking someone new is a risk, they are looking for someone to fit and someone who will work within the system.

It seems, however, that many schools demand teachers with experience over talent, stability over innovation.  I would like to think that, as educators, we would want the most energetic, dynamic, and passionate people we could find to teach our children. The following clip illustrates the type of classroom dynamic I feel is vital to motivate young people, not just to be successful IB students, but to be enthusiastic learners.

This here is a battle, a war and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.
In my class you will think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anyone tells you words and ideas can change the world.

Not only do I bring this type of enthusiasm to the subject which I teach, but coupled with my knowledge of new media, technology, and youth culture, my expertise and passion make me an ideal candidate, even without the formal experience. My point is not to disparage the system or the teachers working within it. I even wrote a post not too long ago, saying that maybe I need to traditionalize my approach a bit. I am here to discuss why I think it would behoove any administrator to take a “risk” and hire someone with no formal IB or even HS experience- someone like me! I put risk in quotes because I am after all an Ivy League educated former Peace Corps volunteer with a passion for literature, service learning, and inquiry-based learning. Did I mention I hold a second degree in Creative Writing, have self-published a book of poetry, and spend every free second I have devouring books? I am an innovative and experienced educator who has spent the last tens years carefully grooming a career that spans K-12, ESL, English, Journalism, Drama, and Social Studies on three continents!

I was meant to teach IB English because I truly believe in the IB values and I love literature. I am a quick and able learner, and I have proven myself in situation after situation.

IB’s mission statement states that IB:

aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

What does this have to do with subject mastery or experience? Just because I have never taught a high school or IB class does not mean that I am not experienced enough to teach these traits. I think after reading my philosophy and looking at some of my work, anyone can see that I am more than able to promulgate the IB values. The mission statement goes on to say:

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Differences are highlighted in the mission statement! I think it is beneficial for schools to assemble a diverse IB team at any school. While teachers with experience bring a stability that administrators and parents find comforting, the spirit of IB demands schools take risks and diversify their potential departmental members.

Administrators should not only be looking for teachers who have been teaching the same list of novels, in the same manner for twenty years; they should be looking for teachers who will teach students how to:

  • ask challenging questions
  • learn how to learn
  • develop a strong sense of their own identity and culture
  • develop the ability to communicate with and understand people from other countries and cultures.

I ask any potential employer reading this post to know that I am such a person. To prove that I am ready to make my move into high school in general and IB in particular, I attended the level one training session this summer at the UWC in New Mexico through my own initiative and expense. I wanted a firm understanding of the IB philosophy, values, and assessments. I assure you I am ready to enter any department and get started encouraging students to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

IB and high school are ultimately about building relationships with students and fostering a connection with their own learning. Here is another clip which I think sums up my point well. Thank you for your consideration.

To see examples of some of my work click here and to read more on my philosophy read here.


English Teacher

As a teacher who understands and champions the benefits of using new media, social networking, or for lack of a better word- technology in the classroom, I think I often lose sight of what it is I am actually teaching. With recruiting season fast approaching, I have found myself immersed in the painstaking task of marketing myself.

While updating my resume, highlighting my innovative skills, or writing cover letters stressing my ability to be adaptive, collaborative, and visionary, I noticed how little I was talking about my love of the subject I teach- Language Arts.

It seems there is very little room in modern job recruitment for simply talking about why one chose to teach the subject of their expertise. Perhaps, I have gone about selling my career all wrong. Perhaps, administrators are not looking to see that their teachers are able to work in dynamic collaborative environments for the purpose of improving student learning. Maybe they just want to read why a certain teacher loves literature or science, or whatever the case may be. Perhaps, the only thing they would like to hear us discuss is how we can transfer our love of Steinbeck or Fitzgerald to students who are, more and more rapidly, becoming disengaged from the written word.

It is conceivable that after all the talk about our philosophies, skills, and technological know how, we as teachers should sit back and reflect upon what it is that we love about the subjects we teach everyday.

There is something indescribable about the feeling of sitting in a comfortable place, highlighter in hand, reading a great book. That feeling of kinship, understanding and bonding that is formed between author and reader is the epitome of social networking. We spend so much time and energy discovering new tools to help connect our students to information and to each other, that we sometimes forget that truly understanding a great piece of literature, having the ability to deconstruct, analyze, and synthesis text, and finally being able to produce a carefully crafted critique of a work can be just as effective of a skill to have as say blogging.

The poster children for how not to teach a class in the new age of technological pedagogy is the old chalk and talk, lecture from the podium, teacher as expert, been teaching Macbeth the same way for twenty years, thinks he or she is a professor, English teacher.

While I have spent much of my career, arguing that this style of top-down, teacher centered teaching is ineffective, lately I have been thinking that maybe simply teaching students how to read effectively is the most important thing we can do as Language Arts teachers. If our job is to teach literature then perhaps we need nothing more that the text. Everything else sometimes seems to be nothing more than a dog-and-pony show designed to keep students entertained, but not actually focused on the work.

I entered teaching because I wanted to help young people understand the world around them, in hopes that they would feel obliged to contribute to its fate. I chose to teach English because I see art in general, and literature in particular, as the greatest tool humankind has produced to help us connect and communicate with each other.

Photo by nozomiiqel

Students may need to use blogs and other web based tools to share what they find, and connect with other students, but ultimately all they need is a good book and an inspirational teacher to guide them through it. Collaboration is great, but reading is often a very solitary act. Connection with a great piece of fiction needs only three things: author, reader, text. Everything else is secondary.

Reading over my resume and various cover letters, I am afraid that perhaps my devotion to technology is perhaps overshadowing my love of Language Arts. I am first and foremost a lover of books. My goal is to arouse this level of worship onto my students. I want students, parents, and administrators to know that I am not an IT teacher. I am a Language Arts teacher who realizes that the new web is a fantastic place for learning. I have chosen to use as many tools as I can to accomplish this task, but I am in no way convinced that technology is the only way.

I am not sure anyone feels this way. It feels like teachers are being forced into these dialectical relationships, where either you are an integrated teacher, or you are a dinosaur. I refuse to buy into this. As I try to show prospective employers why I am the best fit for the English teacher position, perhaps I need to find space in my CV to highlight these factors as well.

What do you think? Is your teaching sometimes overshadowed by the tools you use? Do you find yourself more excited by a new web application then say a Nabokov novel?