Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Art of Language

Now that we have September behind us, what sticks out the most to me is the idea that words, no matter how simple, really do matter. I started the year being given a word to define my teaching and the impact I had on students last year. Leading up to that, I believed that whatever rating I would be given due to the new teacher evaluation system, that it was not important. The idea that you can quantify the myriad of ways a teacher affects his or her students is not only invalid but ridiculous.

My rating was ultimately determined by one test.  A test that my district has abandoned using due to the disconnect between its content and what actually happens in an ELA classroom. Hearing of this decision might lead to the logical conclusion that, perhaps, any rating that was drawn from this poorly chosen assessment, which had been agreed upon by both the teachers union and administration, might be thrown out as well.  Sadly when it comes to decisions in education today, logic is usually no where to be found.

So I am stuck with my rating.  Just a word, right? No big deal. I am 'Developing', and thus, a teacher in need of improvement.  Well, actually, a teacher who needs to improve student test scores on an assessment that will not be given this year.  Logical? A teacher who is deemed 'Effective' when based on how her students performed on the NYS ELA exam. A teacher deemed 'Effective' when administrators observed what really happened in my classroom with students. But still, 'Developing'. The label hangs around my neck until my current students' test scores prove otherwise.  

This is how I started the year, and then I began to get to know my current students. With each day that passed, it has been their words that have chipped away at the burdensome weight of my rating. It happens at the end of each class as they pack up and head out. A few look my way and simply say, "Thank you."  The first time it happened, I was caught off guard.  My reaction was to laugh as if it was a silly thing to say to a teacher.  I certainly wasn't feeling as though I deserved any kind of thank you.  So in return, I said thank you back to those students and shook off that strange feeling of, What just happened?

As the practice of thanking each other as we parted ways each day continued, I began to share what was happening with colleagues, friends and family.  And I as I listened to myself relay it each time, I began to wonder why hearing those words confounded me so.  It saddened me that this simple acknowledgement of the give and take that happens in a classroom as something to be thankful for was not part of our school day routine.  In expressing our mutual thanks to one another, my students taught me something that I knew all along but allowed to be drowned out in the shunning of the American teacher that happens regularly by politicians and the powers that be that hold sway when it comes to current corporate education reforms.  The label assigned to us can create a barrier to those that sit alongside us in the classroom.  It cultivates, while maybe more subconsciously, an adversarial mentality between teachers and students.  Students as mere data points.  Teachers as data collectors. 

This cold and crass understanding by those who claim to know what's best for schools is not only insulting it has the potential to poison the roots of that which allows learning to happen.  Any effective teacher knows that there has to be an element of trust and respect present.  A classroom is not a one-way street.  It isn't simply about what I have to offer them but what we all bring to the table and have to offer one another.  My students and I get that.  If only everyone did.  Instead they set the rules of the game to create a rift in the powerful and amazing relationships my students and I share each year.

And to those that think they can so easily define who I am, who my students are and the value of the work we do together, shame on you.  You do a real dishonor to the teachers who affected you in positive way, that I am sure you could name if asked.  Teachers who you remember not because you were grateful for some test score you earned but thankful for the authentic connection you shared while sharing their love of learning.

Well, I for one will do everything I can to bridge the divide that has been set before us.  I plan to hold tight to my students.  I am firm in my belief that what happens in my classroom is so much more than a test can assess.  My students are beyond the measure of a 1, 2, 3 or 4.  And I am more than the word handed to me by those that dismiss without prejudice the important personal exchanges that happen each day within the walls of our schools.  We will carve our own labels for ourselves this year and will continue to remain thankful for the time we spend each day in that pursuit.

PS:  Lastly, I would like to end with some words of thanks.  First to my students for reminding me of the beauty in what we do each day.  Thanks to their families for shaping such wise twelve year-olds. Thanks to their teachers before me for inspiring such amazing thinkers.  And thanks to my colleagues, family and friends who, too, have expressed simple words that help to keep the focus on what matters in education. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

3 + 3 = 1

At the end of last year, I felt exhausted. In many ways, it was my most difficult year of teaching in my 14-year career.  My students and I had worked hard during each of those 180 days but for the first time, there were many assignments and projects that we either didn't get to or had to cut short.   I really didn't like that feeling.  There were so many things that got in the way of what, I believe, is truly important when it comes to learning. (If you take a look at some of my posts from last year, you will see what some of those things were.)

Over the summer, I take time to read and reflect on the evaluations that my students fill out for me. There was one theme that kept coming up again and again. The theme of independence.  I like to think that I give my students a lot of choice and freedom in their learning.  But what I was hearing from my kids was that they needed even more.  So I am going to listen to those requests and have begun this year in a new way.  A way that will, hopefully, lead to that independence and control that I think students do crave.

Below you will find my first assignment.  I've named it the 3 + 3 = 1 Letter.   It is a step in helping my students get to know me and vice-versa.  In creating a truly democratic classroom, we must first create a sense of community and trust.  I am eagerly awaiting the replies of my students with their own 3 + 3 = 1 letters.  I've even gotten several early! (Not bad for only having one day of school so far.)  Which I am taking as a sign that the changes I am planning to make this year are definitely a step in the right direction.   I hope my blog will serve me this year in sharing the successes and pitfalls of this exciting experiment.  And I hope to hear from those of you that take the time to read about it and will share in it with me. 

Click here to read my 3 + 3 = 1 Letter.