Category Archives: Teaching

Situational Paralysis: Make a Good Plan

While I am visiting my parents this weekend, I came here to Gas City to a Starbucks, where I worked during graduate school which seems like ages ago now, to work on lesson plans for school next week. The school corporation where I work uses a system called PAR to evaluate all new teachers and also struggling teachers who have been teaching for a while.

I value this system, because every teacher should have other teachers observe them, and every teacher has room to grow and learn, which is facilitated well by conversations with a good, mentor teacher (I am lucky, mine is fabulous). Conversely I dislike this system, because it requires me to write formal lesson plans every weekend for every period for every class, and sometimes I just want my students to work on a project for a few days, but I don’t know how, in a formal lesson plan, to adequately express where I will be and what I will be doing for those days.

And sometimes, let’s be real, formal lesson plans seem like one more thing when you have a general trajectory for your students’ lessons, like they are taking time away from making the lesson happen, doing a bit of extra preparation for your students, grading their work and making meaningful comments, and all those things that really make a difference.

But, in American culture, what are we without a plan? We start planning our kids’ lives from before the time they are even conceived. We tracks students by their achievements from the time they are in preschool. We guide students forward on their trajectories all through elementary, leaving brown, black, female, financially poor, and queer kids at the margins (if you don’t believe me, a simple google search will prove my point; there are countless scholarly articles that speak to these issues as well). These groups spend far more time out of class, in the principal’s office, in the nurses office, and out of school for behavior or absences, and frequently they are left behind.

We start seriously asking students what are their plans for their futures in seventh grade (I’m 44 and I still don’t have a solid plan), but those same groups of kids (the marginalized) are largely at a loss for guidance as papers (lessons and punishments) are pushed their direction, sometimes in languages they and their parents cannot speak or read, sometimes for opportunities they and their parents do not understand, and sometimes with the lens of a cultural structure into which they do not fit. Twenty-first Century Scholars in Indiana, for example, must be applied for by the end of 8th grade, so students and their parents have to choose to go to college by the young age of 12-14. If they miss the 8th-grade deadline, there is no second chance.

So, yes, plans matter in the USA. And your plan had better be a good one, the right one. As a teacher, my plan had better be a good one, the right one. No pressure.

 

 

Force-Feeding “Literacy”

A young African American male sits directly across a typical American middle school classroom from me, sighing heavily every time the computer puts a new question on the screen. He’s asked me several times how many questions there are, and all I can tell him is somewhere between 30 and 50, because this test is a test that gives a different amount of questions to each student dependent upon their success or failure on the proceeding question. Another young African American male keeps falling asleep so frequently I ask him to stand up to take the test, so he’ll not be tempted to put his head down. He is only on question 14, and I am sure this moment in time is only further cementing his hatred of reading. A young white female, who has obviously done this before, flew through the test, just fast enough for the “disengaged student” filter not to catch her apathy. A young white male clicked through too fast yesterday, and had to take it again today.

I am not okay with my students being this frustrated and disengaged with the written word.

I’m sitting in this classroom, giving my student the NWEA assessment, which isn’t a bad assessment in and of itself, but it’s one of three assessments I will give to my students within the first three weeks of class, and I will give another one the week after next. We use Achieve 3000, IXL, NWEA, and SRI to assess our students’ reading levels. We are expected to share this data with the students, have them track their own progress, and have them reach for grade level by the end of the school year.

I am not okay with giving more assessment than are absolutely necessary to gauge my students’ abilities.

Having students be responsible for their own data is like multi-billion dollar corporations asking me to ring out my own groceries, so they can cut the jobs of my fellow workers. I work with students who do not need one more thing to make them feel bad about themselves, students who are on average a couple of years below grade level, and it is my job, as the one with the college degree and license in education, to make sure they improve, to make sure they learn, and to make sure they grow.

Most importantly, my job is to help students love language and literature. If they don’t love it, they won’t engage in it, and they won’t change the world for the better, because they won’t know how to read. But I cannot do this by using a canned program that exists solely to make money for its purveyors, no matter how well intentioned it began.

I am not okay with Capitalism in the classroom.

Language and literature appeal to me precisely because they are wild and unruly and unpredictable. These facets of culture move with us; they are alive and changing and growing. They aren’t subjects that are fixed in time or place, and they should bring us joy, sorrow, information, relationships, anger, love, and all those human emotions. We shouldn’t expect students to read something, answer a couple of program-based low-level comprehension questions, and be done with it. We shouldn’t put a dead and static text in front of a teenager and ask them to fall in love with words.

I am not okay with teaching students to hate reading by participating in what passes for English Language Arts in American schools.

Those of you who love to read: when was the last time you read something you were forced to read, other than for work? When was the last time you sent your friends a list of basic comprehension question when you had a book recommendation for them? Do you keep reading a book or a text you hate because you have to? Is there someone in your life who forces you to read things that have no meaning to you or for you?

Personally, I like to pick my own texts, talk about them with my friends, and write about them in my own ways. I like the freedom to stop reading something that doesn’t interest me. And, you know what? I end up reading all types of texts, having all kinds of amazing conversations with people I’d normally never discuss those subjects with, and I write all types of writing in response.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could afford our students the same pleasures we have with language and literature, instead of jamming them inside tiny boxes of canned programming and contrived literary situations?

Beginning Again Again. Homesick A Bit.

I was doing so well with my workouts.

For about three weeks, I didn’t miss a workout. I swam, cycled, ran, and lifted my little heart out. Then on week four, I felt a bit lethargic. I still walked a bit and I swam a bit, but I just didn’t feel right. Whenever that happens, I always assume I am getting sick and I try not to push my body past what it can handle. I was right. I had strep throat and some sort of ridiculous sinus mucus thing on top of it. I slept or stayed on the couch for two days, then I swam only 500 yards one day, then I rested for another day.

Today, I am back at it. After work, I plan to go for a 3-mile trail run, hoping against hope that it doesn’t get dark before I finish. I was too lazy to walk back upstairs to get my headlamp, so if it gets dark, I’ll just be running in the dark. With any luck the clouds will be thin and the moon will be out. I’m enough of a romantic to find running in the dark to be simply glorious and awe inspiring.

Tomorrow is cycling. Wednesday is swimming and lifting. Repeat. Rest on Sunday. Repeat.

*

This past week I was homesick a bit. I miss my friends and family. I miss knowing people. I miss Indiana. I realized on Tuesday that I felt so homesick because I had planned to go home to watch the school I graduated from swim against the school I previously taught at and the school who was my high school’s biggest rival. Basically, I wanted to see a three-way between Blackford, Jay, and Burris. Burris’s homecoming week was also this week, and as cheesy as I always thought it was when I was there for it, I missed it so much. I missed the stairwell decorations, I missed the dress up days, I missed the dodgeball games, and I missed the dance. I was fortunate to see lots of photos that my students had taken, but I wasn’t there in person. It was hard. I wanted to be at home watching my favorite students be seniors, but I was at work because my manager was at a three-day manager’s meeting along with every other Caribou manager.

Everything I did last week made me think of the fond things about home. I know full well that I am where I am supposed to be. I am more mentally healthy than I have been in a really long time. And, of course, distance and time have a way of softening the bad memories while simultaneously making the good memories better.

Nostalgia.

I’m better today. I’m less homesick. I’m getting more sure of my footing here. I’m stepping into gratitude for the things I have here and the relationships I’m building. I’m learning to live again in a different way, in a different place, with different opportunities.

 

Sunday, Sunday: Full Report, Each First Sunday of the Month

So, here’s an update for My 20 Before 40:

1. Run a marathon. I signed up for the Twin Cities Medtronic Marathon on October 5, so I have 230 days to get myself to be able to run a 6 hour or less marathon. Still working on this, and it’s going better. I’ve run or walked at least one mile every day for 14 days in a row. Woot.
2. Finish the Racine 70.3 on July 21 in under 8 hours. I have signed up for this, and it’s 153 days away. My goal is to finish the 13.1 mile run in under 3 hours. I’m planning to get on the bike this week on Tuesday and Friday.
3. Swim a 500 in 7:30 minutes. This needs some work. I will get back in the pool on Monday, March 17 for two workouts each week, so this is in progress. I’m hoping to make it to Florida to swim at the beach before I move north as well.
4. Do yoga every morning. I’ve been doing balancing exercises, using poses from yoga, because I’ve read that balance can have a lot to do with injuries and plantar fasciitis, as well as just not looking cool when I fall over while standing still sometimes.
5. Do a 30 burpees in 30 days challenge. I am going to start this on the day after Bec moves to MN. I figure it’s a good way to work off anxiety. I’m also adding in, slowly but surely, other body weight exercises, so I can build a bit of muscle to try to burn off some of this fat.
6. Ride a century ride on the bicycle. As soon as the registration is up, I am going to sign up for the Headwaters 100, which rides around the headwaters of the Mississippi, something I’ve wanted to to do for a long time anyway.
7. Meditate for at least 15 minutes each day. I’ve started walking a 1.6 mile loop and then meditating for 15 minutes every day during my 9AM prep period.
8. Eat mindfully and with joy.
9. Try foods that aren’t the usual things I eat. I am eating Greek yogurt for breakfast and trying new ciders and beers.
10. Visit Indiana state parks and Indiana breweries with my brother. This weekend we visited Black Acre brewery with his friend Jenn and Becky. We had sampler flights, and they were pretty tasty.
11. Learn to cook one new thing each month. We’ve had oxtail stew and shark. I was going to try to make haggis, but all the recipes I find require a sheep’s stomach, so I am going to make marrow bones one day instead.
12. Do not drink alcohol and be paleo the 30 days prior to any major sporting event.
13. Read the whole Bible. Working on it.
14. Draw every night before bed. This will become much easier once I cancel the cable and internet.
15. Finish my master’s degree in creative writing. Publish. Yeah. This. Class.
16. Post a blog post every Sunday. I’m posting on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Two weeks in a row now!
17. Get a new tattoo. I’m going to do this after Racine 70.3.
18. Lose 60 pounds. I’ve resorted back to the panopticon called My Fitness Pal. Ick.
19. Find a job doing something I love. This may be a pipe dream, but I hope it works out.
20. Read a new book each week. I am slowly making my way through books… Slowly.

Fiction Friday: Speech Sounds

My women in literature students read Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” for class this week. We also read Donna Harraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto.” In this class, we use Friday as a work day, and the students can work on whatever homework they want to work on. I’m a firm believer that when we ask students to do difficult tasks we should give them grace, support, and time to work on those tasks in class with our support, so I give them Fridays and their abstracts for the theoretical works are due on Monday of the next week. Tuesdays are reserved for discussing the fictional work from the previous Thursday in light of the new theory, then on Wednesdays, we read four poems through the theoretical lens. If you’re really confused about how this works, you can access the schedule here.

Anyway, we read “Speech Sounds” and my students were really insightful about the text and discussed the ways in which Harraway’s theoretical ideas were present in the text. They picked apart the dichotomies and got at the permeable boundaries and were, in short, brilliant about the text. They loved the story as well. One idea we didn’t get at, that I am hopeful we will get at this week through “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Helene Cixous is the idea that the woman, throughout the story, has a voice, but can’t use it. A couple of students brought up these ideas, but sort of skirted around them in discussion. I would love it if we could really get at that idea and explore why Butler writes the female protagonist as a woman who can speak, but who can’t speak within her cultural context. What would she say that the other folks can’t hear? In the context of the story, she’d be killed for speaking, but is there cultural application for Butler’s views on female speech or lack thereof? Yes. Of course. But getting my students to speak thoughtfully about that will be the challenge of this week. Sometimes I love what I do!