Ask any teacher (especially this time of year) how they're doing, and my guess is their response will be "busy" or some synonym thereof. The truth is that "busyness" is pretty much par for the course in this profession, and so this month (a particularly busy one) I thought I'd reflect a bit on how a teacher might best prioritize his/her time. Whether facing a time consuming class project, a district initiative, a stack of papers, a student need, a community event, an administrative request, a building committee, a licensure requirement, (the list goes on and on...) it must all boil down to one question: "Is it good for kids?" It may sound ridiculously reductive, but if that's not ALWAYS the central question, what are we doing here? And so, here's a flow-chart version of how I try to prioritize my time. Feel free to give it a try when your to-do list is seemingly insurmountable:
Monday, March 13, 2017
Worry. Lose sleep. Be anxious. It means you’re doing something worthwhile.
Lately, I’ve been feeling anxious, I’ve been losing sleep, I’ve had daily, probably hourly misgivings. And yes, I’m a teacher, so this is all a bit par for the course, but I’ve been teaching for 24 years--- I should be well past the nervous, sleepless, anxiety-ridden stage.
So, what’s going on? I’m trying something in my classroom that I’ve never tried before. Something uncertain, something risky, something unpredictable. And I’m in too deep to turn back.
I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students. It’s a concept I ran across at a conference in last summer. Jay Rehak, writer and English teacher in Chicago Public Schools, has collaboratively written and published several novels with his high school students.
“He did WHAT?!” I asked myself this past August, scrolling through the list of conference offerings.
After reading his session description, I gathered my laptop and my free Google swag (the second best thing about conferences) and headed for Mr. Rehak’s session, hoping to have my questions answered, namely: How in the world did he motivate his students to write a novel? How did he get a classroom full of teens to create an end product good enough to publish? How was all of this managed in the context of a teacher’s life (at school and home)? I headed to Room 309 of Whitney Young High School, seeking answers.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself back on the conference agenda, scrolling for a different session. I still don’t know what happened to Jay Rehak that day. He didn’t make his first session (full disclosure, he had two more sessions scheduled, but as a presenter myself, I couldn’t attend them). He had, however, provided a link on the conference agenda to his presentation slides which was enough to get me hooked on his idea...a class-sourced novel...and enough to send me, five months later, into my current state of anxiety and sleeplessness: I am writing a “class-sourced” novel with my Freshmen English students.
So how DOES one write a class-sourced novel? In a nutshell, Jay Rehak’s method (generously shared and clearly explained in his How To Write a Class-Source Novel book) begins with the teacher writing the first chapter of a narrative which teens can connect to. Then, each student writes a chapter which can stand on its own as a short story but also contributes to the growth of novel’s larger narrative. Finally, the teacher writes the concluding chapter. And then, the novel is published.
Easy, right? So where’s the anxiety?
Let me count the places:
- The Newness: Imagine trying something new. Now imagine this something is a very challenging something. Now imagine trying this very challenging something in front of a class of 25 high school students.
- The Writing: Writing fiction is itself anxiety-producing, as are many creative acts. Ask any writer about what it’s like to hand your new work over to your first reader. Now, imagine that your first reader is a classroom full of teenagers.
- The Release of Control: Writing fiction in English class requires a teacher to relinquish some control and grant a level of freedom that can be a bit unnerving. And then there’s the assessment: How does one quantify creativity? How does one grade a work of fiction? It’s much easier to teach more concrete writing: the research paper or a persuasive essay.
- The Uncertainty. Having students write is one thing; having them publish is another. Last week it was time to read all of the 1st drafts of the chapters. Doing so gave me some encouragement, but mainly anxiety. I realized that we have much work to do. The next day, I wrote on the board: “Author: a writer who hasn’t quit.” I shared my anxieties with them and I had them take an anonymous survey. All but one student said they’re excited about the novel and they’ll do what it takes with their editor and with me to get to the point of publication. I can work with that.
- The ego. Publish a book with my Freshman English students and there they are, and there I am, for everyone to read and judge.
That anxiety I’m feeling? I'm certain they are feeling it too. Collective stress. But I believe it's eustress, a term from the Greek prefix eu-meaning good, and stress, literally meaning good stress This is not a new concept. Endocrinologist Hans Seyle coined the term in the 1930’s, convincing the scientific community that a manageable amount of stress elicits optimum performance and can lead to personal transformation.
So that’s the story I’m sticking with. This anxiety, this stress, is precisely what will lead us to do our best and most meaningful work.
Rehak himself, in his 2016 TED Talk (yes, he gave a TED Talk, how cool is that?) speaks of a similar end game: “I can’t promise you big dollars or a spot on the New York Times Best Seller List,” he asserts, “but what I will tell you that if you do write a book (with your students)...and you publish it...that the joy that you feel and the community that you create and the pride that you feel will bring joy to you for the rest of your life.”
That sleeplessness? That anxiety? That stress? They are trivial entrance fees into the land of the worthwhile. They are signs that I’m alive and that I’m doing things that matter. I’m not counting the days until retirement. I’m counting the days until my students see their names in print. I'm counting the days until our book signing event. I'm counting the days until they see the connection between struggling with words and communicating worthy ideas with the larger world.
So, fellow teachers, whatever your grade level or content area, I implore you: go to conferences, read professional journals, and seek opportunities to go beyond your comfort zone, to lose sleep and to feel anxious, for it means you’re alive, it means you have purpose, and that your students too will feel alive and have purpose.
That’s worth losing sleep over.
at 4:12 PM
Monday, February 6, 2017
Teach·er ˈtēCHər/: 1. Instigator of Truth. 2. Agitator of Critical Thinking. 3. Provocateur of Free Thought.
Ah, predictable me. If you’ve at all been a reader of my blog, you can probably predict my dilemma right now. These days, I suspect I am hardly alone in this quandary. I’ve written about it in the past: the push and pull between the public school teacher me and private citizen me.
SO here’s my (utterly predictable) dilemma: How does one teach in these politically-charged, complicated times when “fake news” masquerades as the truth, when “real news” is labeled “fake news,” when Orwellian terms such as “post truth” and “alternative facts” are no longer the stuff of Dystopian novels, but mainstream discourse?
And to those of you who are about to call me out for bringing politics into my classroom, let me say this: When language itself is being altered and manipulated, when knowledge itself is being distorted and undermined by the highest offices in this country, politics has clearly forced its way into our classrooms, not vice versa.
Let’s take English class, for example. In English class, we talk about words: what they mean, what impact they have, their origins, their connotations. In English, we research and write. We teach students to be skeptical readers, to find reliable sources, to verify facts, to examine multiple sides of an issue or topic. We do this so our students become good readers and critical thinkers capable of making credible arguments and discerning reliable information in their post-secondary studies, in the workplace, and in the larger world. We do it so they become effective communicators and responsible citizens.
Enter “post-truth,” “fake news,” “alternative facts”; enter a presidential administration which openly disputes easily verifiable facts, which calls the media “the opposition party,” which maligns and berates those who question and attempt to fact-check.
If we are truly “teachers" is it not our responsibility to “teach” students to examine, to question, to discern the truth, to navigate through the complex world of politics, the media, the blogosphere, and propaganda?
It seems to me (I’m primarily speaking of English teachers and Social Studies teachers here) we have three options:
- Do nothing. (Welcome to the path of least resistance and least responsibility).
- Go for it. Lay out the evidence: let videoclips of Spicer, Conway, and Trump speak for themselves (And be prepared for the fall-out).
- Navigate somewhere between 1 & 2. (Provide a path for students to investigate this critical topic for themselves).
Last week, I attempted #3. I amended our Debate unit in Freshman English to include a few days examining Fake News and what has become the murkiness surrounding “the truth.”
Full disclosure here: Designing these lessons was cause for much anxiety and reflection. I teach in a predominantly conservative community which, like much of his country, is deeply divided and deliberately silent in public on many critical issues that matter to us all.
Long story short, here’s what I did and why. If you feel so inclined to use any of this in your own classroom, please steal it outright:
Day 1: Students reflected on their own experience with Fake News and examined how its created.
- Small groups of students discussed examples of fake news they’ve encountered on social media or elsewhere.
- Students shared out with the class.
- Assignment: Students researched the concept of “Fake News.”
Day 2: Students participated in a class discussion on the making of Fake News and its impact on Democracy and “Truth.”
- Students shared their thoughts about From Headline to Photograph: A Fake News Masterpiece.
- Students reflected on (wrote and then discussed) James Madison's quote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
- Students then reflected on (wrote and then discussed) Serina Tavernise's quote: “Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.” - New York Times
Day 3: I took dictation in a class K-W-L (Know, Want-to-Know, Learn) exploring the terms “Post-Truth” and “Alternative Facts,” and I introduced the “Triple-Washed Facts” process.
- With a KWL chart on the Smart Board, I presented the terms “post-truth” and “alternative facts.” For each, I asked what we “Know.” I typed as they spoke. Then I asked what we “Want to Know” and I typed out their questions. Then, I had them use their Chromebooks to answer those questions. I then typed as they told me what they “Learned.”
- I introduced the “Triple Wash” Process. This is the process they would use for researching all facts used in this debate unit. 1) Check the Source: reputation, experience, respect 2) Check for “Fishiness": (use your BS detector) Is it too surprising? Too fantastic? Too convenient? 3) Verify it Elsewhere with that “elsewhere” being a separate reliable source.
Over the course of these three days, I never told them what to think. This was very much by design. I orchestrated their own exploration and examination of Fake News and its fallout. I was pleased with the depth of their skepticism, interest, and connection-making. And I was pleased that none of their conclusions came from me.
So now, I’m requiring my students to triple-wash every fact they use in our debate unit and beyond, and I’m imploring them to employ similar rigor to the greater network of information and social media streams in which they live.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Charlie Sykes, former WISN conservative radio host, articulated the necessity of such scrutiny: “The real danger,” he asserted, “is that, inundated with ‘alternative facts,’ many...will simply shrug, asking, ‘What is truth?’ — and not wait for an answer.”
That’s where educators enter the picture. We must be instigators of truth, agitators of critical thinking, provocateurs of free thought.
We must teach students to hold everyone accountable, to relentlessly seek the truth, to look for the larger narrative. As citizens in a democracy, it is our job and theirs to hold none above such scrutiny.
at 11:32 AM
Sunday, January 8, 2017
This month, I'll cut to the chase: short but not at all sweet---
Betsy DeVos is President Elect Trump’s nominee for United States Secretary of Education.
DeVos is an activist and millionaire donor in national efforts to divert public educational dollars away from public schools and toward for-profit corporations undermining the original intent of charter schools.
This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.
The charters DeVos advocates have little to no oversight as to the quality of the curriculum, credentials of the teachers, and which students they can deny enrollment. They are exempt from evaluation and monitoring requirements of public schools, many are rife with financial corruption, and many significantly underperform academically compared to their public school counterparts.
This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.
As Diane Ravitch, Department of Education appointee for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, said "If confirmed by the Senate—DeVos will become the most radical, anti-public-school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867."
This is the woman set to lead public education in this country.
DeVos has never attended a public school, nor have her children. She has zero experience in public education as a student, teacher, or an administrator. She has no background or experience in curriculum or pedagogy.
This is the woman set lead public education in this country.
Imagine having a new boss at work. Now imagine that this new boss has no experience in your field whatsoever and this new boss has a track record of defunding and destroying companies she leads. Now imagine this work place is every public school in the country.
This is what we’re dealing with.
1. Educate yourself about Betsy DeVos:
2. Act, email, and call your Senators accordingly.
*The confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos is set to begin January 11, 2017.
at 9:45 PM
Sunday, November 13, 2016
How many of us woke up this past week feeling unnerved, fearful, distraught?
If the media (social or otherwise) has any remaining credibility, about 50% of Americans heard the trumpet of doom this past week. Half of this country is experiencing a crisis of consciousness, engaging in some serious soul searching, lumbering through the stages of grief.
I need not state the obvious reasons why because, well, they are obvious...and because regardless of whether you’re on the mourning side of that 50% or the elated side of that 50%, I believe you could benefit from three words:
Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Seriously? What does Cinnamon Toast Crunch have to do with this...or anything?
See, a couple weeks ago, I received an unexpected email at school:
Subject Line: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
It was an email sent by a former student of mine. Let's call her Alison. We hadn't crossed paths for 9 years, yet when I saw the email’s subject line, a smile of recognition snuck across my face. I knew immediately what this was about.
Alison began the email with some context: “You might remember that you once purchased a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for me. You also took the time after school to listen to my paper about my mom's mental health issues since I wasn't comfortable reading it in front of the class.”
She continued, “One day in class I was complaining about being hungry and never being able to eat breakfast since one of my parents always ate all of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then, I remember coming to class one day and you gave me a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I was SO grateful, happy, and shocked that someone cared. I know I didn't express much emotion when you did that for me but I cried later that day knowing that someone cared enough about me to do that. Back then I wasn't very good at expressing my emotions and I'm pretty sure I did my best to avoid you from that point on because I just wasn't used to that.
“Years later, especially after I graduated high school, I started to feel regretful about never really thanking you for that act of kindness and there were many times I started writing an email to you but would exit out. However, I couldn't forget that day and how much that impacted me even years later. Thank you so much Mrs. Felske for the Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I will never forget that! I went through a lot while in high school and every act of kindness that I received really mattered.”
Okay, THAT’S Part I of this blogpost, and here’s Part II (bear with me, it’ll all tie together, I promise).
A week ago (pre-election Nov. 4th) the Dalai Lama wrote an editorial in the New York Times. He discussed the global anxiety running throughout the US and across Europe, and suggested a solution. He said we must do good for others; we must “be of use.”
He cited research showing that people who feel useful are three times less likely to die prematurely as those who don't. “Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important.”
This makes sense to me.
Buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for Alison years ago was a small act. At the time, what she had said in class reminded of the time I received a jar of applesauce for my birthday. Being one of eight children in my family, that jar of applesauce (my favorite food and a whole jar to myself!) was, for me, sheer jubilation. And it was that childhood memory that landed me in the cereal aisle grabbing a box of cereal for Alison, knowing that she’d appreciate it, but not giving it much thought beyond that.
What I now know is how much that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch meant to Alison. Her email reminded me what all of those seemingly small moments we have with our students can potentially mean to them both in the moment and years later.
It’s what the Dalai Lama calls a “compassionate society” where ‘selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.”
Importantly, he reminds us that this is not a liberal or conservative cause: “What unites us...is not shared politics or the same religion. It is something simpler: a shared belief in compassion, in human dignity, in the intrinsic usefulness of every person to contribute positively for a better and more meaningful world.”
His solution for our anxiety and feelings of disconnectedness? Begin each day by consciously asking ourselves how we can be of use.
Like buying that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Or one of a million other small acts of kindness there for the doing. For educators, there are countless such opportunities. For all human beings there are countless such opportunities.
The take-away here, pretty obvious. We need to remember the words of the Dalai Lama, to remember Alison’s email, to remember Cinnamon Toast Crunch...as a verb---the antidote to resentment, anxiety, and despair by “being of use” to those we encounter in and out of the classroom.
Now, back to Alison. Perhaps you are wondering what she’s up to these days? She is a Behavioral Health Social Worker, paying it forward, distributing her own metaphorical boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch to those in need.
As the Dalai Lama says, “The answer is not systematic; it’s personal.”
Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
at 7:35 PM
Sunday, October 9, 2016
These were not the “Dear Diary” scrawlings of an eight-year-old in a sparkly pink journal, secured by an adorably tiny lock. This was pure teen angst, an unfiltered look at my high school hangups.
My 15-year old self would have been mortified! In fact, one of my journal entries (November 13, 1985) confirms it: “I TOTALLY FREAKED OUT YESTERDAY!!! I thought this journal was gone! I would totally die if this got out!”
So why, 31 years later, did I (“totally”) betray the confidence of my 15-year-old self? And what legitimate place, you may be wondering, does any of this have in my classroom?
Okay, fair question. My objective that day was to introduce my students to podcasting, as eventually they’ll be recording their own podcasts. And since it was Homecoming week, the plan was to play for them Homecoming Ruined My Life, an episode detailing "The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben” - an entertaining look at the awkward inner and outer life of a high schooler trying to get a date to Homecoming. It was an episode from Mortified, a podcast in which adults share “their most mortifying childhood artifacts (diaries, letters, lyrics, poems, home movies)… in front of total strangers.”
This episode would, I reasoned, serve both as an introduction to podcasting and a direct tie to their lives (a sort of “It gets better” reminder to students on this Homecoming week, a week filled with excitement, rejection, angst, and the whole roller coaster in between).
Duly inspired by Adam Ruben’s confessional, the night before class, I journeyed through some of my own high school journals, earmarking the passages relating to Gordie, my high school crush, and my homecoming disappointments.
And so, in Freshman English, before Adam Ruben read from “The Esoteric Secrets of Adam Ruben,” I read to them from mine:
I recited to my Freshmen confessions of my crush on Gordie, stress over homework and grades, my unhealthy fixation on losing 5 more pounds. As I did, I felt as vulnerable and sophomoric as I did back in 1985, and yes, a bit mortified. A classful of adolescent eyes were raptly fixed on me. There was a palpable mix of curiosity, surprise, and empathy in the air.
Why the intensity? Why were students glued, eyes and ears?
It turns out the private moments of teenage me were universal moments to my students decades later. The word is authenticity.
To learn from us, students first need to see us as real people. When I read from my childhood journal, my students saw me as a real person who was once a self-conscious, conflicted, complicated teenager, not unlike themselves.
As an English teacher, I want words to do for my students what, looking back, they've done for me. I want my students to use words to express themselves, to relate to others, to feel less alone, maybe even to read years from now, as adults looking back with a more gentle understanding of their younger selves and a greater empathy for the teens in their own lives.
Not until my 24th year of teaching did I read my journal aloud in class---perhaps it required precisely that much time and distance for me to be comfortable doing so. What I do know is that taking that risk and stepping into that potentially mortifying moment, childhood journal in-hand, will now be another tool in my teaching repertoire.
- If you have a childhood journal or assignment from when you were in school that you can relate to what your teaching, use it!
- It’s tricky to mix the private and the personal in your classroom, but if bring your teenage vulnerabilities into the classroom, your students will respect you for it.
- Podcasts are an untapped goldmine for our classrooms across the curriculum. (More on that, I suspect, in a future blogpost).
at 7:46 PM
Monday, September 12, 2016
Would you rather have a great teacher with mediocre shoes or a mediocre teacher with great shoes?
I’m thinking (hoping) nearly 100% would choose the former.
Admittedly, the question is not quite fair: it’s not an either/or. One can, after all, be a great teacher with great shoes (I would offer my friend Kristin as a prime example). And, I would like to think that for much of my career, I too was a great teacher with great shoes.
Now, however, as I begin my 24th year in the classroom, I strive to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes. I am no longer in the business of donning spectacular shoes at school.
You see, last year mid-December, I was at an out-of-town conference when my feet retaliated against 22 ½ years of daily heel wearing. For no reason clear to me at the time, by the end of the day, I literally hopped back to my hotel room, my left foot painful to the touch. Anti-inflammatories were my short term cure; sensible shoes have been my long term solution.
My teaching tip this month? Wear sensible shoes!
- Your feet are your foundation. The average teacher takes 4,726 steps per day at school, the equivalent of climbing the staircase in the Empire State Building three times! The realization that I made that trip, in heels, for 20+ years makes me feel more than a bit foolish.
- Girl Power: We know that becoming good at anything is the result of hard work, reflection, and incremental improvement, not great shoes. Let’s model for our female students that we are more than just our footwear. Astonishingly, the American Podiatric Medical Association found that 42% of women say they will wear a shoe they like even if it causes them pain. To that, we must say “Yikes!” and “Never again!”
- Be Good to Yourself. We try to drink more water, eat less processed foods, exercise, floss...why not also wear shoes that won’t hurt our long-term mobility?
- K.I.S.S.: Keep it Simple Stupid. Throwing on comfortable outfit and sensible shoes in the morning will get you to work fifteen minutes earlier which will make you more effective all day long.
- As educators, we are always looking at data to learn about student achievement and student needs. Why aren’t we also “data-driven” about ourselves. Data shows that the angle a high heel nullifies our natural shock absorbing abilities, stiffens our achilles tendons, shortens ankle and calf tendons, and changes our natural gait (Women’s Health). Dr. Sajid Surve of the American Osteopath Association writes “The effects aren’t limited to the feet; it’s not unusual for people who spend lots of time in high heels to have low back, neck and shoulder pain because the shoes disrupt the natural form of the body.” The data is clear: down with high heels, up with arch support.
This is why, educators far and wide, I implore you to be a great teacher with mediocre shoes.
at 6:31 AM