Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mr. Aion: Student/Teacher

During my first semester as an undergraduate mathematics education major, I was told by one of my professors that I should change my major.  After meeting 18-year old me for a total of 7 times, she determined that I wouldn't be a good teacher.  While I can't necessarily say that she was wrong at the time, thinking back, I'm amazed that someone so ensconced in education would be willing to give up on a student.  She dismissed me from the start, rather than helping me to see what I needed to.

While I did change my major, I didn't give up on being a teacher. After graduating, I moved to New Jersey and entered an Alternate Route Certification program where I was hired as a full time teacher and enrolled in education courses at night.

As a direct result of this process, I didn't student teach until I moved back to Pennsylvania and enrolled in a Master's of Education program.  I butted heads with several of the professors in the education department over things that I saw as the short-comings of "education" education, many of which I have laid out previously.

I believe that as a result of these differences in personality, I was placed in a student teaching assignment that was meant to be a punishment.  While many of my classmates were placed in affluent districts, I, as well as some of my more vocal associates in the program, were placed in districts deemed "failing" by the state.

This turned out to be a blessing for me, as I thrived in this environment.  My cooperating teacher was a thorn in the side of his administration, but an excellent teacher.  He and I were of a similar temperament and teaching style, and we hit it off right away.

Since I had already taught my own classes for a few years, he handed over his schedule to me right away and we were off to the races.  The experience of teaching in someone else's class was amazing and, for the first time, I realized what I had missed by not doing student teaching the first time around.

Having another, more experienced teacher in the room who knew the kids and the system was excellent.  He never interfered with my lessons or class management, but we had several conversations of reflection afterwards, the function of which was replaced by this blog for many years.

It may not have been at that point that I realized I wanted to be a mentor teacher, but it was very soon afterwards.  In my previous district, I never had that opportunity, but now I do.

Last Monday, my very first student teacher showed up.  She is eager, energetic and ready to go!  She comes to my class so late in the semester because she spent the first half in an elementary placement.  My 7th and 8th graders are the oldest students that she has taught and, while she admitted she was nervous, she has taken to it admirably.

But this post isn't about her.

It's about me.

Because everything is about me.

Last week, she was observing me teach, learning the kids' names, interacting with them, writing lessons and getting ready to take over.  We had several conversations about what role she wanted me to play as her co-operating teacher; silent observer, class participant, co-teacher, etc.  I want this experience to be as valuable for her as possible, and that means giving her what she's looking for, rather than just checking the boxes handed out by her program.  Her previous co-op was more reluctant to hand over the classes, being worried about upcoming standardized tests.

I have no such concerns.

On Monday, I handed over my Math 7 class, giving her free reign over 25 7th graders at the end of the school day, all of which come to us from gym class.

I took my seat in the back of the room and immediately realized my error.

Folks, being a cooperating teacher is HARD.

Teaching is a strange profession for many reasons, but one of them is that we come to see our classroom as our domain.  This room is my space.  When I am in it, I expect certain things to happen and things to go a certain way.  When they don't, I usually know why.

When you observe another teacher, you are forced to notice things that you wouldn't normally notice.  You go into their kingdom, taking stock of similarities and differences. You note how they interact with students in a different environment.

Being an observer in your OWN kingdom is WAY strange.

I had decided I wasn't going to do any discipline or interacting with the students.  I was going to let her teach and interact the way she wanted to and let the chips fall where they may.  I sat in the back, blank expression, watching a lesson happen in my classroom, biting my tongue.  As my mouth slowly filled up with blood from biting my tongue, I wrote notes for her based on what I saw, and what I didn't see.

It was overwhelmingly positive.  I loved the way she interacted with the kids, the way she presented the lesson, and many, many other aspects of her teaching.

The biting of my tongue had absolutely nothing to do with her and everything to do with the difficulty I having giving up control in the first place and resisting the urge to helpfully jump in.

Upon reflection of my reaction, several things occurred to me, all of which boiled down to a single statement:

I need to be a better teacher.

Saying this isn't a statement of self degradation, but merely an observation.  I am a teacher. I think I'm a fairly good teacher, but I am by no means a master teacher.

I have so much to learn.

In the 7 days that she has been in my room, I have been more reflective on my own practice than I have been in months.  I have thought of better ways to present content, more encouraging ways to interact with the students and my coworkers, and better classroom environmental structures. Having a room full of students who are supposed to be learning from you is a very different experience than having one adult in your room who is looking for you to be a mentor.

Introspection is, once again, becoming my most common partner.

It has been almost 15 years since I have been on the dating market, but I do remember that during the first few weeks and months of dating a new person, people become the best versions of themselves.  We want to impress our new partner.  We do all of the things that we know we should do, many of which fall off of the wagon of complacency that comes from the comfort and familiarity of a long-term relationship.

We have more patience for the faults and more appreciation for the strengths of the person we are dating.  Everything they do is amazing and we go above and beyond in order to make the relationship work.

Having this future educator in my classroom is rekindling many of my own feelings about education that I had no realized needed to be stoked again, blowing new oxygen on the embers until they blaze.

I have been complacent.  I have been lazy.  I talk a good game, but my follow-through has been lacking.  I have not been the better educator that I want to be.  My student teacher, simply by being present in the room and asking me to help her to become a better educator, is doing the same for me.  I am already grateful for her.

I am invigorated.  The next six and a half weeks will be so fascinating.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Preparing the Future of Teaching

My student teacher starts on Monday, so I've been doing some informal research. I've been asking new teachers about their experiences and what I can do to make this one as valuable as possible for my student teacher. I'm hearing consistency across the board:

Education programs do not prepare teachers for the reality of teaching.
Actual footage of a 1st-year teacher
They focus very heavily on lesson preparation, content knowledge and organization, which is all important. Unfortunately, they skip or miss the most important aspect: Kids are kids

My own grad program did an excellent job helping us to develop cool lessons and understand the history of educational policy. Unfortunately, they gave the impression that a solid lesson will make everything great. Yeah, no.

I see this philosophy all throughout my educational interactions with people who are not classroom teachers. The idea of "if the kids aren't engaged, you need to a better lesson" is pervasive, foolish, misguided and dangerous. When teachers complain about how their students are not doing what we ask, the go-to response is (infuriatingly) that we should make the lessons more interesting.

Teaching is about interacting with students. A good lesson is the first step of a marathon. The rest is student interaction, knowing your kids, empathy, knowing your kids, improvisation, building a culture of safety, and knowing your kids.

My education program required 7-10 page lesson plans for each lesson, citing educational research, state standards, scripting interactions with students and multiple avenues of follow-up. Each plan took me 2-3 hours to write.

At no point in my program, did we have a discussion about what it means to interact with middle school students as though they are people. We talked about them in the abstract way of "clients."
We had long conversations about how kids change all the time, but my professors hadn't been in a classroom in decades.

We talked about the importance of making your lessons engaging, but not HOW to engage unengaged students beyond "make the lesson better."What we didn't do was have discussions about interacting with students beyond the surface.

At no point did we talk about what do when your students can't concentrate because they or their family members have court dates coming up and are worried about going to jail.

At no point did we talk about what to do when you have two kids in your room who simply will not stop throwing things at each other.
At no point were we taught how to interact with unreasonable parents. What to do when a first phone call is to the superintendent. How to survive when administration requires you to do something that YOU know is counterproductive to your students.

What do I do when I've spent weeks building up to a lesson and the day before, the loud, popular girls gets dumped and spends the whole period crying?
We never talked about how to deal with bullying in class. We never talked about what to do when a student dies.

Teacher burnout is a real thing. It's an epidemic and is doing awful things to our education system, to future teachers, and to our students. We need to provide teachers with support, but more so, we need to give pre-service teachers the reality of teaching.

Teaching is about students; first, last, and always. Yes, it deals with lessons, content, activities, self-doubt, homework, plans, stress, seating charts, rosters, and crying yourself to sleep. It deals with those, but it's about the students and their needs as people.

Education programs do observations throughout the programs, but student teaching is always at the end. When you discover the wonderful and horrid realities of what it means to ACTUALLY teach, you've been invested for years. This is a tremendous disservice to new teachers.
This is a metaphor!

So what do I want to do for my student teacher? I want to give her space and support. I want to let her deal with issues of walking the tightrope while remaining the safety net far below. Let her learn, fall, get back up and grow.

I want to remind her that just the way that school isn't a good representation life or learning, education programs are not a good representation of teaching. I want to help her become the amazing teacher that she can be.

I want to speak with more pre-service teachers about the reality of teaching, but I think the first time I did so in an education program, I wouldn't be invited back. Colleges, like any other school, are so invested in their curriculum, that any slight push sending them crashing

There are amazing teacher prep programs out there, but they are few and far between. I've met teachers as college students and watch them leave teaching in less than 3 years because of how unprepared they were.

You will cry regularly during your first year. You will be scared and sad and questioning. You will be angry at your coworkers, your students, your parents and your admin. You will be elated when a lesson goes well and crushed when it doesn't.

Teaching is hard as hell. Anyone who says otherwise is either doing it poorly or works in the recruiting office at a University.

I just hope she can write a good lesson plan, otherwise her classroom management will be up the creek.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Year 5: Opening Week

Well, not really.

Yes, it is opening week.

It's not REALLY year 5.  This week I began my 11th year as a classroom teacher.  I taught for 2 years in northern New Jersey, 7 years at an urban/suburban school outside of Pittsburgh and now I'm starting my second year at my most recent school.

It is, however, year 5 of this blog.

I spent the last 4 years writing a reflective post every day that I had contact with my students (and a few other posts as well) with one specific goal in mind: I want to be a better teacher.

I made the decision early on to make the blog public and link it to my name.  This was primarily because I knew how fragile the public face of a teacher can be.  One angry parent putting words in the right place can ruin the career of someone who had been changing lives for many years.

I've seen it happen.

As a teacher with a public blog, public Twitter handle, I knew I was taking a risk.  I also knew that having the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head would force a level of mindfulness into the blog that I wanted.

It forced me to focus on me.  When a lesson went wrong, it wasn't because the kids were crappy.  Kids are kids.  If a lesson was bad, it was because I could have done something better and I was determined to do so.

Over the last 4 years, the only times that I have written about specific students were when they were amazing and I wanted to shout praise from the internet rooftops, or when a negative interaction with a student helped me to turn my eyes inward in order to improve and ensure that it didn't happen again.

That has always been my goal.

Over the years, there have been several times when I have felt as though I was sugar-coating my experiences and reflections out of fear of administrative or parental reprisal.  At the same time, I have not had any administrators ever ask me to take the blog down.  I attribute this both to having excellently understanding administrators in this regard and my own constant awareness of my intentions in writing.

As I look back over the last 4 years of this blog, and as I begin to embark upon another year of reflective writing, I can't help but notice the changes that I have undergone as both an educator and a writer.  I think it's safe to say that my colleagues who have known me for a while will agree that I'm a different teacher than I was when I began this adventure.

I also like to think that I'm a better writer, although I still frequently fall victim to hapless ramblings and I will probably never stop putting two spaces after a period.  (Sorry, English teachers.)

I am not sure that I need the same things from this blog as I did when I began writing.  I still see the value of reflective practice and especially in such a public forum as this one.  With three days with students already having lapsed, however, I'm not sure I feel the need for it to be daily.  I haven't quite decided where I come down on this, except that I already missed a few days.

With all of that said, I still find solace and comfort in putting my thoughts down, sending them out into the void to be read or ignored by anyone.  I will continue to do that until such time as I am unable to reflect upon my own practice.  I would hope to continue to receive feedback from those who choose to spend their time reading my words.  I welcome feedback and questions and I acknowledge that I am not perfect.

I am not a master teacher.  I am merely a man who teaches and wants to be better.  I will make mistakes and errors.  I believe in a growth mindset and am willing to learn from my errors.  I am deeply thankful to my readers for accompanying me on this journey for as long as you are able.

So, about that first week...

The students joined us for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week and I wanted to make those as positive as I could.  I know how much time is spent on the first day going over classroom rules and expectations.  I wanted no part of that.

Last year, I began my classes by asking a seemingly simple question: What is a sandwich?

I LOVE this question, as anyone who follows me on Twitter probably knows.  It is a question that everyone can answer, but with a strange twist: everyone knows what a sandwich is, until they are asked to define it.

"Meat and cheese between two pieces bread."
What about peanut butter and jelly?
"Something edible between two pieces of bread."
What if it's only 1 piece folded over?
"Something edible between bread."
Does it have to be bread? What about an ice cream sandwich? Is an open-faced sandwich a sandwich? If it is, does that make pizza a sandwich?

And so on.  The students get deeply frustrated, but in a way that doesn't allow them to give up.  They argue about it for days and for the rest of the year, I'll be asked "yeah, but is it a sandwich?"

This activity is designed as a low-entry, high-ceiling thinking exercise.  It requires students to examine their own thinking and preconceptions, articulating them in a way that allows them to be understood by others.

Since 2014, I have had my students recite the Pledge to Improved Mathematics, a student-friendly version of the 8 Standards of Mathematical Practice as laid out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

This activity fits solidly into several of these goals and the kids seem to love it.

Last year, I taught 7th and 8th grade students.  This year, I teach the same.  This means that my current 8th grade already did this activity and the impact wouldn't be as a great.  I needed something else.

I began by asking them about mythology.  We talked for a bit about the various myths that they know and how ancient cultures impact modern ones.  Then, I asked: "Do any of you know what a centaur is?"

I passed around quarter sheets of paper with the above image.

"Draw pants on the centaur."

The ensuing argument/discussion raged for the remainder of the period and ran the gamut from "where are his no-no bits" to "the front ones are horse arms and should be covered by his shirt, not his pants."

It was a tremendous activity and allowed us to talk about user experience, as well as purpose and goals.

How can you even begin to solve a problem if you don't understand the need for a solution?

On day 2, all of my classes did the same activity: Sara Van Der Werf's "100 Numbers to Get Students Talking."

You can read the basic activity on her page because she explains it MUCH better than I could, but I wanted to detail the order in which my kids worked through it.

Iteration 1: They completed the activity alone, circling the numbers from 1-100, or as many as possible in 2 minutes.

Iteration 2: They completed the activity in groups of 3 or 4, with each student only allowed to circle a number after a teammate had circled the previous number.

Iteration 3: Same as iteration 2, except each kid used a different color pen.  This allowed them to see the patterns and develop a strategy.

Iteration 4: The students could use whatever strategy they chose, but there were two changes.  First, they couldn't go in the same order than the previous iterations.  Whoever was circling number 1 before was now circling number 2.  The second change was that no one was allowed to talk.

In between each iteration, I walked around taking pictures and put them on the board when the timer went off.  (I would post them here, but there are lots of faces and I don't have photo consent.)

I asked them what they saw.

The pictures all showed the same thing: engaged students working together on a task.  Their heads were together and many were confused by the pictures because they were so into the activity, they didn't know I was walking around.  Ultimately, it was a pointless task since we recycled the papers after each round, but they didn't care.  They competed with themselves to do better each time and fought for every second of the clock.

We talked about group work and what it meant to be engaged in a task cooperatively.

I saved the clerical stuff for the last day.  I used Standards-Based Grading in my classes and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to explain how it worked and why I use it.  The 8th graders had it last year, but I made some tweaks and needed to be clear on those.

For the 7th graders, this was an entirely new experience on top of being in middle school, an entirely new experience.  I had them read the syllabus out loud to the class and talked about what I expect from them and what they should expect from me.  I have been checking my email all weekend in case any parents had questions.  As of this writing, I've had no calls or emails for clarification.

I think this is going to be a good year.  I refuse to stress about posting every day, but will post as often as I feel I need.  Every day brings something new.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Spectrum of Teaching

When the universe was young, a race from the planet of Oa declared themselves the Guardians of the Universe.  They harnessed pure will power and forged it into rings of power that shone with green light.  The bearers of these rings could use their will power to create whatever constructs they dreamed of and became a police force, patrolling the universe protecting the weak.

This was the Green Lantern Corps.

Eventually, one of the most powerful Green Lantern broke from the ranks, believing that fear was a more powerful emotion than will.  He forged his own ring using the yellow light of fear and used it to impose order on the universe.

Over the course of various story arcs, the remaining colors of the emotional spectrum were discovered and harnessed.

In April, I received my 4th tattoo.  I struggled for months, deciding on arrangement, placement, style and purpose.  Unless I'm wearing shorts, this is my most visible tattoo and so, as expected, I was asked about it by many people at Twitter Math Camp last week.

I'm always happy to talk about things that I love (math, tattoos, comics, myself, etc.) but I don't feel as though I gave anyone an adequate reply.  My tattoo relates directly to my soul as a teacher, who I am, who I want to be and maintaining balance.

The Red Light of Rage:

When a student forgets a lesson, or doesn't complete an assignment, for the 10th time in a row, the red starts appearing around my vision, I need to stop and take a breath.  When a student casually throws out a racist or homophobic slur, or when they purposely try to hurt another student to make themselves feel better, the rage boils to the surface.  When a parent doesn't care that their child can't read, and instead is singularly focused on getting them in to college in 5 years and I can't seem to make myself understood as to why that's dangerous thinking, my fists clench under the table.

Rage can be constructive or destructive.  I am a fairly angry person.  I have tried to change this fact, but I've come to a realization.  The anger is a part of who I am.  It is passion and righteousness and fury and pain.

If I'm going to fight, I might as well fight for what's right.

My Red Lantern tattoo reminds me to direct my anger appropriately, to let it drive me to fight for my students.  I use it to advocate for the quiet voices and to lift up those who are shoved behind.  Rage cannot rule my life, but it can fuel the fires.

The Orange Light of Avarice:

In terms of teaching, this is the hardest for me to solidly explain.  The closest I can come is by recognizing that I refer to the room in which I teach as MY room and the students who go there to learn as MY students.  Neither of these is true.

The room is OUR room, one in which we learn and grow together.  The students aren't mine, or even ours.  They are their own people.  Yes, we take them under our wings, are proud of them when they do well and express disappointment when they don't.  Ultimately, however, they are not ours.  They need to be who they want to be, not who we want them to be.

Outside of the classroom, my orange light shines brighter and clearer.  I have a fairly strong social media presence and check my number of followers WAY too often.  I keep a reflective teaching blog that, while I say I write for myself, I'm delighted every time someone shares the link or tells me how much they like it.  I watch the number of views per page with the hunger of a starving man standing outside of a bakery, each new view singing in my blood.  I crave the validation that it brings.

I am greedy for it.

My Orange Lantern tattoo reminds me to calm down.  Clicks, likes, favorites and tweets do not actually bring happiness.  They may be jolts of satisfaction and a feeling of acceptance at having your ideas shared by friends and strangers, but it is fleeting.  Happiness and satisfaction take time.  Greed provides motivation and drive.  It puts a goal in front of us.  It's vital, however, that we don't develop a myopic focus on that goal.

Set a greedy goal, go after it with avarice, but not to the exclusion of all else.

The Yellow Light of Fear:

Any teacher will tell you that when they started teaching, they were afraid.  At the beginning, I was terrified that they would find out that I had no idea what I was doing. I was afraid that I wasn't going to have a good lesson or that I would say something wrong.  I was afraid that every time I saw an admin, they would remember that I worked there and would correct their error.

Over the last 10 years, my fears have changed and morphed.  I am still afraid of getting fired every day, but it's now a small background buzzing fear.  Now, my fears run more towards my students.  I fear that I'm not giving the education they need.  I worry that I'm not providing them with enough a space to grow into themselves.

Professionally, I am afraid of being left behind.  There is always a new technology, a new tool, a new strategy that someone I deeply respect is using to tremendous effect.

I fear that I will fail my students.

I fear obscurity.

My Yellow Lantern tattoo reminds me that fear is not something to be ignored.  It provides us with direction and guidance.  It can be a familiar friend when we are lost and can push us to conquer that which we thought we couldn't.  Fear is good, but we can not allow it to rule us.

The Green Light of Will:

Teaching is hard, you guys.  Like, super hard!  Many days, it takes an act of pure will power to get dressed, drive to school and do the best that we can for our students.  We are often besieged by students who don't want to learn, parents who don't understand pedagogy, administrators who are also besieged and trying to do their level best, and coworkers who are burned out and exhausted.

Every day brings another story of education injustice perpetrated by local, state and national government, taking away funds from the kids who need it the most and expecting teachers to work miracles without resources or support.

And yet, we persist.

In brightest day, and blackest night, we power through to do what we can for the students in our charge.

My Green Lantern tattoo reminds me that I AM strong and capable.  It reminds me that my mind is a weapon that I can wield for good.  If I want to be a better teacher, I must start with the will to be so.

The Blue Light of Hope:

I believe that if you split all of humanity into their respective colors based on their driving emotions, a disproportionate number of teachers would be Blue Lanterns.  Teaching is the embodiment of hope.  The mere act of educating is investing in the future, imbuing it with the hope of a better tomorrow.  When we teach, we hope that our lessons have lasting effect.  We hope that our students will grow up to be happy and successful.  We hope that we have done right by them and by all who will interact with them.

This hope, however, isn't blind.  We don't cast these dreams into the darkness of the unknown with the expectation that they will land safely on the other side.  We work towards the other side.  We build the ledge further out in order to give those dreams the greatest advantage we can.

We don't just wish for a brighter future.  We construct it one day at a time.

My Blue Lantern tattoo reminds me that there is always hope.  The feedback that we receive isn't always positive, or even obvious.  Sometimes, we never know what has happened to the students who have passed across our rosters and through the doorways of the classroom.  None of that matters.  What matters is that we work towards that which we hope and we never give up on it.

The Indigo Light of Compassion:

I never had to worry about a family member overdosing on drugs.  I never had to worry about the water or power getting turned off.  I never had to worry about the police battering down my door in the middle of the night to take away someone I loved.

There are an infinite number of experiences that my students and I do not share, both positive and negative.  We are creatures of experience.  Who we are is a product of our environment and the decisions we make, even when those decisions are impossible to make correctly.

My Indigo Lantern tattoo reminds me that my students are human being with hopes, dreams and passions.  They have people who love them and situations that they can't escape.  They have issues that they tackle daily, any one of which I would find insurmountable.  They are paralyzed by problems that I would consider trivial.  They are human being and deserving of compassion.

The Violet Light of Love:

"Why are you still a teacher?" is a thought that all teachers have had, frequently about the grumpy coworker who complains about the kids every day, but also about themselves.  We wonder why we teach and can be swallowed by the dark spiral that comes from those questions. There are days when I have to lock myself in my classroom and recenter myself. I am not someone who teaches.  I am a teacher and I sometimes forget what that means.

My Violent Lantern tattoo reminds me that I love teaching and I love my students.  There are often days when both of these are hard to remember (usually Monday or the first day back from a break.) It is a constant and permanent reminder of the good that I wish to do and why I wish to do it. 

Mattie asked this question earlier today and it had me thinking.

Where do you fall? Where do you WANT to fall?

Which Corps do you belong to?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Boundaries

Author's Note: This post acknowledges human sexuality and recognizes the existence of reproductive organs.

On Sunday night, I returned home from Origins, a 5-day gaming fair in Columbus, Ohio.  For those 5 days, the Columbus Convention Center was transformed by game rooms, vendor booths, demo stations and food booths.  Several restaurant in the area around the convention center modify their menus, renaming pretzel sticks to "Wands of Food Creation" and so forth.

For 5 days, Columbus became the Mecca for gaming nerds and, being with several great friends of mine, I was in my glory.

The games were incredible and I could write posts reviewing each one.  I may do that at some point, focusing on the educational games that I picked up for my classroom.  Unfortunately, it was not all light and joy.

As one might expect, there is a severe diversity issue with a demographic that could spend 5 days sitting around playing games.  The majority of the 16,000 attendees were white and male.

Yes, there was a considerable number of women in attendance.  Yes, there were a few people of color in attendance.  No, I don't have the exact numbers and didn't see everyone who attended.  By my estimate, not including women who were there with vendor booths, I would put female attendance at less than 10% and people of color at FAR less than 1%.

In addition to all of this, the last few years in the gamer and comic community has seen a rise in the "Cosplay is not Consent" movement.

I'm continuously aware of this issue and, on the off chance that someone's costume is great enough where I want to verbally compliment them on it, I'm very conscious about how I approach and address female cosplayers and gamers.

People derive power for their costumes.  They wear them because they want to, not because they are looking for a convention center of mediocre white men to drool over their display of skin.

This being my first gaming convention, I learned an incredible amount, not just about gaming, but also about my own style.  The group with whom I regularly game is made up of very good friends.  We know where our boundaries are. (Spoiler: There aren't really any.)  On the off chance that someone crosses those boundaries, no one is offended because we know that it was unintentional.  It is addressed, apologies are exchanged and we move on.

When gaming with strangers, however, my humor changes drastically.  It becomes much close to that which I use at school.  I want everyone to have fun and I'm unwilling to give that up for the sake of a crass joke.

This came into sharp relief during one of my morning games.

The group consisted of a good friend of mine and four other people, one of whom was female.  Early in the game, the woman did something that, for the rest of the game, when she referred to it, the line between intent and innuendo was blurred at best.

Since I didn't know her, I was unable to tell if this was intentional or accidental.  When she talked about it, I made side eyes at my friend, whose thinking was on the same lines as mine, but we made no outward sign.

Since she didn't know me, I was very aware that any comment I made may have either been received as intended, or pushed me into the masses of drooling, socially-inept male gamer stereotypes, focused on nothing but slaying dragons and gaping at breasts.

In addition to this, the woman at the table was dressed in a costume that accentuated her breasts.

Would a joke about her phrasing make her laugh? Would she appreciate it? Would it make her uncomfortable? Would my joke be the reason why she might not wear her costume next time?

For all of these reasons and more, I decided to keep my jokes to myself.

In the conversation about this situation with my friend later, we discussed how we wait for the others around us to set the line of appropriateness.  We wait for strangers to make a joke and, whatever it happens to be, we make sure that ours remain on the side of civilized culture.  This isn't because we are civilized, because Torg knows we aren't.

Part of it is a deep awareness that a large portion of the conference attendees aren't even going to consider the feelings of others, not because they are bad people because it simply wouldn't cross their minds.

I can't even imagine the experience of being a female gamer at a convention and I want to go out of my way to make sure I don't ever make that experience worse.

Another major piece of it is that we are educators.

Any educator worth their chalk recognizes that content is secondary to relationships.  We build rapport with our students and they learn better as a result.  We laugh and cry and joke with them because we are people and they are people and that's how those things work.

But we are adults and they are children.  They don't always know how to set the boundaries of what makes them comfortable and it becomes our job to do so.

There are teachers who never joke and laugh with their students because they draw a VERY clear boundary between professional and personal relationships.  There are other teachers who regularly spend time with their students outside of the class, involve them in their personal lives and treat them more like mentees and friends.

Both of these approaches, and everything in between are acceptable and their efficacy  is determined not be the approach, but by the person setting the boundaries.  I fall much closer to the latter category and recognize that the love I feel for my students is much closer to that of a father or mentor.  At the same time, I've seen many excellent teachers who have a distinct boundary of professionalism that they never cross. (Think: "Don't smile until Christmas")

The issue of boundaries at conventions is much more about those who cross them than those who set them.  Cosplayers, especially female cosplayers, are well aware of how they look, the thoughts of those who see them and what they are willing to accept from strangers.

As adults, they are able to set their own boundaries. (For the most part)

Part of the purpose of school is to help students learn the idea of boundaries and how to politely interact with other people.  Dress codes institutionalize this concept, for better or worse.

When interacting with students, a teacher is (or damn well should be) constantly aware of boundaries.  We don't want our students to be sexualized. We don't want our students to feel as though they can behave how they like.  We don't want them feel powerless and out of control of their own lives.

At a conference, it's easy to stay on the safe side of these boundaries by minimizing contact with others and simply keeping those jokes to yourself.

As a teacher, however, we MUST build relationships. Without relationships, a teacher is simply a verbal text book and, therefore, not a teacher.  Relationships require risk.  There is give and take, joy and pain.  The line is blurred and, arguably, must be.  Students need to feel safe, but they also need to be who they are.  Their personalities, needs, desires, hopes, fears and loves must all be recognized and addressed.

They are people.

Empathy is crux of a civilized society.  Without it, we are savages fighting over rocks.

Friday, June 2, 2017

It's The End Of The Year As We Know It, And I Feel...Confused

Today was the last day of my 10th year as a classroom teacher.

I spent my first two years in New Jersey before returning to Pennsylvania. After earning my M.Ed. at Duquesne University, I spent the next 7 years at Woodland Hills, just outside of Pittsburgh before moving to my new district at the beginning of this year.

In all of that time, I have experienced a plethora of emotions at both the start and end of the school year.  Most of those years have been a mixture of sadness at watching my students move on, pride at watching my students move on, and relief and joy at not having to get up at 5 am, worry about lessons, teen drama and being able to wear shorts, t-shirts and sandals.

The last student day approaches, building to a crescendo like the wind in an oncoming hurricane.  The winds of chaos increase steadily until that last day when garments are torn, teeth are gnashed, and everyone generally forgets that they are human beings.


This year, however, didn't feel like that.  Yes, there was unmitigated chaos.  Yes, the hallways were a disaster of discarded papers, backpacks, hoodies, pencils and corny love notes.  Last night, I helped out at graduation and was honored to watch the seniors walk across the stage.

For some reason, it still didn't feel like the end of the year.

I don't have the sense of closure that normally comes with cleaning out my room, packing up my stuff and saying goodbye to my coworkers.  I wasn't alone.  Numerous people today remarked that they felt the same way.  It could be that without the typical 90 degree days, it doesn't quite feel like summer yet.

We had a few meetings and a cookout for our retiring principal, but then we all went our separate ways with casual calls of "have a good summer."

It's entirely possible that, since this district is a very small and tightly knit community with families interwoven for multiple generations that the separation between work life and social life is blurred for many of them.  Almost 75% of the faculty live in the town where we teach, are alumni of the school, or have multiple relatives who live and work there.  Knowing that the teacher down the hallway is your cousin and you'll be vacationing with them in a few weeks changes the dynamic drastically.

I am excited for summer.  I am ready to spend the days with my own children.  I am ready to attend the various conferences and do some travelling.

I'm also not ready for those things at all.

I feel confused about my feelings.  Rather than feeling as though I sprinted over the finish line, it seems as though I fell asleep during a movie and woke up during the credits.

I have no way to account for this.

It's a wildly unsettling feeling.

Regardless of how I feel, however, year 10 is in the books.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Day 179: Student Feedback

Today was "Bump-Up Day," a day for students to walk around the school and visit the classes and teachers that they will have next year.  The schedules are tentative, but I don't mind at all.  It gives me a chance to see the new students and make a first impression before they leave for the summer.

As of right now, my schedule for next year consists of Math 7 and Pre-Algebra.  Any student who was in Math 7 last year (all of my students) will be in Pre-Algebra this year, which will be interesting to see how they've grown over the summer.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to blame their last year's teacher for any gaps in their understanding...

There was interesting division between the 6th grade boys and girls.  The girls seemed eager to make a good impression while the boys seemed eager to show off on how silly they were.

All of this was good and interesting, but it wasn't the most important part of my day.

Bump-Up Day was after lunch.  Before lunch, we ran a shortened schedule where the students went to their regular classes for a grand total of 20 minutes.

Since the grades were due in yesterday and 20 minutes isn't much time to get into anything, many of the teachers were showing movies or having kids help to pack up their rooms for moving in the fall.

I decided that I had a golden opportunity and I took it.

When I students came in, I was sitting at the front of the class with a notepad.  I talked briefly about the importance of feedback and touched on several points that I had been attempting this year, such as discussion of process and the constant need for improvement.  I reminded them that this is true for teachers as well.

I asked them for their help in making me a better teacher and making the class better for future students (or themselves, in some cases.)

Specifically, I was looking for ways to motivate them, make the class more interactive and improve my grading system.  I made some suggestions and got their feedback.  They made suggestions and I kept notes.  Something came forward that was common across all of the classes:

"Homework should be graded or we won't do it."

I explained my issues with that.
1) Grading homework doesn't encourage kids to DO it, but it does encourage them to copy it, defeating the purpose entirely.  They agreed with this point and acknowledged that they always copied someone else's math homework.
2) I care about proficiency, not compliance.  If you do all of the homework and can't demonstrate proficiency, you aren't ready to pass and homework points give you a false sense of success.  If you have mastered the skills, then there's no need for you to do the homework just to keep your grade from dropping.
3) If you're only doing homework because it's graded, you're missing the point entirely.

After some discussion, we came up with a new system that would encourage homework for those who needed the practice while not requiring it of those who don't.

The new plan is as follows:

Before each section/unit/skill, the class will take a brief (3-4 question, 5-10 minute) pre-quiz that will be scored on the 0-4 scale that I've been using all year.  Based on their pre-quiz score, students will be set along different assignment paths, each designed to hit specific concepts and reinforce previous ideas.

"If you earned a 0 or 1, this is your assignment list for the section.  If you earned a 2 or 3, these are your assignments.  If you earned a 4, you'll do these."

At the end of each section, we will have a skill quiz, as we have this year.  A major difference here will be that we will have more skill assessments that are shorter, rather than saving up several skills for a big test.

Students who do not score a 4 on their assessments will still have the opportunity to reassess, but the requirements to do so will be MUCH more specific.  They will need to complete specific practice problems and attend a certain number of seminar periods, determined by their score.  They will then get to schedule a reassessment to demonstrate their knowledge.

They also had several suggestions for changes to the warm-ups and various activities.  I wrote them all down.  I'm taking their suggestions very seriously and will be implementing as many as I can in the fall.

I am grateful for their feedback.  Maybe next year, I should do this at the end of each marking period.  I worry, however that they wouldn't give me honest feedback for fear of repercussions.  That just means I need to do a MUCH better job of fostering trust in my classroom.
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