Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Stuff My Students Say Part 1

I've been down a bit about the reality that my job isn't as charming as I used to think it. However, I do have good days. One of the joys of teaching is hearing things students say to each other and to me in writing and in conversation. Today I thought I'd post a few gems from this term.

A response to an assignment where students had to read creation stories from different cultures around the world.
Student: "I learned that Japan has always been weird. Uh, I mean… Different. Lots of things just happened. The story I read was probably shortened a lot, so I don't know why a lot of things happened. When you think about it, all creation stories are weird. They try to explain very specific things that really didn't need to be explained. Did I really need an explanation as to why canoes exist? Probably not. They do let you see into other people's cultures, though. Even though most people in those countries are probably just as weirded out by them as we are. From what I have gathered, the members of the Japanese Imperial family are considered to be deities, or at least descendents of deities. Egypt is the same way, the Pharaoh used to be worshipped as a god. Something tells me these stories were written by people who were quite fond of their rulers. Or perhaps the rulers themselves wrote them? Either way, I’m glad we as a species have grown out of these kinds of stories, for the most part anyway."

As you might have read in the previous post, I tried to have a class party where students would wear togas, bring Caesar-themed treats, and have fun in class. My odd day classes inspired that post, but my even day classes seemed to have a better time. Here is a conversation with two students 10 minutes before class ended:

Student 1: So when do we party?
Me: . . . This is the party.
Student 1: Oh. Okay (sheepishly)
Me: I thought having a class debate would be fun and you'd get to talk with your friends and have a good time.
Me: It is supposed to be fun.
Awkward Pause
Me: I hoped it would be fun, but I'm a nerd and like this stuff. Maybe you guys can plan the party next time.
Student 1: Yeah! I'll bring my x-box.
Me: Um, no. Not going to happen. I think true parties are a waste of your academic time. I think it's better when you can do something fun and educational and get treats. That's a class party.
Student 2: Yeah, I get that. It was a pretty fun debate.
Student 1: Yeah. When do we get treats?
Me: I have grapes!
Student 1: Grapes?
Me: Yeah. You know, Rome, wine, grapes. Julius Caesar. (They nodded politely, but weren't sold on the coolness of the grapes). They are easy to share. Plus I wanted to be conscious of gluten and nut and other allergies. It's hard to find a treat that every one can enjoy.
Student 2: Okay, cool. Good point.
Student 1: They are tasty grapes.
Me: I was hoping you guys would bring something to contribute.
Student 1: I forgot.
Student 2: Yeah.
Me: Next time.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Say Thank You

I remember one day when I was in elementary school, I had forgotten an assignment or my lunch or something very important. As a responsible student, this forgetfulness didn't happen often. I received permission to go to the office and call my mom. Both my parents worked, but I got in touch with my mom and she said she would bring me what I needed. I ended the conversation with this: "Thanks, Mom."

When I hung up the phone the office secretary told me, "It's so nice of you to say thank you. We don't hear that much in this office." I remember this moment because of the shock it created. People don't say thank you to their parents? I was maybe eight years old and my parents taught me to show my gratitude. To this day, I say thank you often. When I am in the drive-thru, when students remember to do something, when I make eye contact with another human being that provided me a service, I say thank you. 

I feel like I need to say thank you to my parents right now for teaching me that interactions with people are not like ATM transactions. When you deal with another human being, showing some gratitude is always appropriate. 

I am given the task each year to make Julius Caesar come alive. It is probably the most boring play I've read by Shakespeare, but I do a good job of making it interesting. We talk about rhetoric and honor and justice. This year I offered them a toga party. Extra credit for dressing up. I brought a bowl full of grapes for each class. We watched the last scene of the Royal Shakespeare Company's newest version of the play (which I highly recommend; it's the least boring version of this play I've seen). We wore togas (well, I wore a toga) and had a class debate about whether or not Brutus was justified in killing Caesar and whether or not all the characters got what they deserved in the end. Awesome. 

As my students left, no one thanked me for the grapes or the party. No one thanked me for making the lesson interesting. In fact, I was battling phones so much, I don't know if anyone even knows really how the play ends. 

As my last class was nearing an end, I had five minutes left. I wanted to ask if they identified Brutus' fatal flaw. While I waited for a response one kid stood up and put his backpack on and remained standing, like he was ready to leave class. I said, "We still have five minutes. Have a seat." The look of disdain on his face was evident. I looked around as everyone else packed up and prepared to leave. I said, "Fine, You're excused." They looked at me dumbfounded and remained seated. I said, "No seriously, get out. You can go. Why are you still sitting? Leave!" One brave soul did, and I walked to my computer and looked busy. I would have sat at my desk, but I don't have one because there isn't enough room in my classroom for a seat for me. I removed it to add three more student desks. 

And still, no one said thank you.

I just need to realize that my students don't actually owe me anything, which is true. A simple thank you just goes so far. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Teachers are Professionals? HA!

One of the greatest sources of my own inner turmoil is the constant nagging about how long I legitimately think I can keep teaching. Every Monday, the dread that faces me is enough to make my concerned husband ask if I want to quit mid-year. We both know I'm far too "professional" for that, but it doesn't seem like the rest of this state considers teachers professionals. 

Last week an article, "Lawmakers consider creating board exam for teachers in effort to keep standards high," appeared on KSL news, and it indicated that the State Legislature is considering enacting a new board certification process for teachers to keep and earn their teaching licenses. This move seems to be in direct response to the Utah State Board of Ed's decision to lower the requirements needed to earn a license in the first place. 

Here's some background: Utah is facing a teacher crisis (that will be the subject of another post altogether), and the Board is trying to use a short-term solution to fix it. Basically, under the new rules, any person with a bachelor's degree can get a job teaching, and through mentoring, receive a teaching license. I take issue with many of these new regulations, including increasing the already demanding work load of experienced "master" teachers, neglecting to acknowledge that it takes education and instruction to learn how to manage a classroom and educate students, and bypassing the many necessary steps it takes to prove mastery in both a content area and in teaching before getting a job. I do understand that the Board is facing a shortage, but they might be doing it at the expense of losing their overworked teachers already in the field. 

I digress. The legislature is proposing (in response to the Board's decision) that teachers be required to take . . . wait for it . . . a test to prove mastery of teaching and get board certified. The process will include evaluations and a test and who knows what else. Upon reading this article (link below), we find out how out-of-touch legislators are with the requirements it takes to get a degree in teaching and in keeping a license. 

Here's what already happens:
Every year teachers get evaluated by administrators in their building. They follow a challenging rubric of best teaching practices. Together the teacher and administrator work on a Growth Plan to improve their teaching and student outcomes for the future. This process is technically different in every district, but not much different (I've worked for 3 districts and it's all about the same). This evaluation process is also directly tied to whether or not teachers earn a pay increase, or in teacher terms, a step increase for the following year. It's high stakes and teachers really are held accountable for what they are doing or not doing in their classrooms. 

Also, before I graduated from Utah State University with a Level 1 teaching license, I had to pass the Praxis II test in my content areas of English and Speech Communications (my minor). A few years into the job, I had to pass the Praxis II PLT (Principles of Learning and Teaching) to upgrade to a Level 2 license. That's two tests. And, evaluations yearly. These are just a few of the requirements to keep or renew or attain a teaching license. Teachers are also required to do a lot of continuing education and professional development, and some teachers even go through the National Board Certification process (which I don't know much about because I don't even know how to create time to research what that takes). 

Do lawmakers not know what teachers already do in order to become "Highly Qualified" in their fields and receive a teaching license? I have to think the answer is no, because a board exam would seem redundant if they did know. Adding requirements to the licensing process will harm the interest of new recruits and deter veteran teachers from staying in the profession. A move like this from lawmakers makes me wonder who in the legislature gets a kickback every time they require or mandate another test. Are there test-maker lobbyists? Is that a thing? That theory makes more and more sense the longer I think of it. 

Teachers are professionals. I am a professional, and I work with professionals. If Utah lawmakers can't accept that, then maybe we shouldn't be called professionals or given any indication that this is a career. They should just teach us to be good little worker bees and do what they ask. Then we wouldn't get so confused about why we are continually treated as though we can't do our jobs. 

It's time that local lawmakers recognized the huge resource they have in the teaching workforce and help us do our jobs instead of giving us all one more reason to quit tomorrow. 

Here's the article if you're interested:


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why I Cried After Class:

As a teacher, I am often pressed with endless questions. “When is this due?” “Why did the poet write it like that?” “Can you explain that again?” “How can you tell what that means?” These questions I can handle. I became a teacher after all to help educate the minds of the future. I want them to ask questions—hard questions. I want them to look at words and furrow their brows with critical thinking working through their brains. I want questions. I feed off of questions.


Today, I designed a high interest lesson. We had class debates on issues from the play Julius Caesar. We debated questions like: Is it ever okay to overthrow a political leader? Is there such thing as fate? Students participated and fought and delved into some interesting issues. After the debate, I used my best storytelling skills and proffered all the most interesting details of Julius’s life.  I told of pirates, war, conspiracy, lovers trysts, politics, speech making, and assassination. I was at my best (and for the 5th time, I might add).

When I finished, I asked my students to write in their notes a bit about what they learned from the class debates we had or from the info I delivered on Julius. The prompt was “What did you learn today? Any interesting thoughts?”

But they couldn’t handle this simple question. “What if I didn’t learn anything?” “Wait, what do we write about?” “How much do we have to write?” “Wait, what do we write about?” “What are we doing?” “What if nothing was interesting?” . . . I answered, I explained, I repeated. And then, I said, “Yeah write a short paragraph, 5-6 sentences about what you learned or even just a thought you had that was interesting in the debates.” I was greeted with shock and horror. “Are you serious?” “Why so much?” “Why do we have to write anything at all?” “5-6 sentences? (eye roll).” I defended the assignment. “It’s not that much. -- I just want to know your interesting thoughts from today. – This is English, you need to use words!” And then the statement that pushed me over the edge. “I’m only writing one sentence.”

Sigh. We’re doomed.

The questions that make me want to give up the most are the questions students ask that show they are their own biggest obstacles in education. To me the question sounds like this: “How little can I do and still get points for doing it?” I hate that, and I don’t use the word hate much. What happened to curiosity and learning for the sake of gaining knowledge? Why are students so opposed to effort of any kind?

At the last barrage of questions and whiny statements, I grabbed my laptop and left the room. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood outside the closed door and counted to 10. The bell eventually rang a minute later and my students (some) literally ran out the door. Some saw me standing there and graciously offered me a thank you, full on sympathy in their observant eyes.

When all were gone, I shut the door, sat in a desk, and cried. I cried for my lack of understanding. I cried for the energy and emotion I put into educating these kids everyday, only to be greeted with sheer resistance. I cried because I’m the enemy and they’re the victims. I cried because I don’t know how much longer I can do this job.  I cried because I don’t know how to break through.

I want to be a good teacher. I want to have one of those classes where everyone is raising their hands to speak, or better yet, understanding the rules of society and can moderate their own conversations with civility.

I don’t know how to do that, and that’s why I cried.