Today is Someday

If I have any Year Eleven wisdom to share so far, it’s the oldie-but-goodie, be yourself.

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As a child of the 80s, this is probably the most common recurring theme of the television, movies, music, and games that shaped my youth, but it has taken awhile to sink in.

Like most <s>teachers</s> people I know, I have a list of Things I’ll Do Someday. I’ll build my Pinterest classroom, and start each day with a poem, and have anchor charts for every protocol and strategy with a dedicated color scheme that my students all know and internalize…someday.

I tell myself every year that this is the year I’ll make literature circles or writing partners really work. Or that I’m finally going to structure some kind of intense folder system when I have ____, or incorporate elements of Restorative Justice into my first five minutes if I ____. Someday remains elusive, as it always will, because it’s not really that I’m waiting for a day to arrive when I’ll have everything I need and I can begin. I know better than that. I say “someday,” but I know that I’m keeping myself from bringing things into my practice.

Some things, I don’t implement because I know I lack the resources. But often I shy away from things I want to bring into my classroom because of my own fear or discomfort. I have been afraid to be silly or passionate, especially early in the year, because I have worried that students will not take our class (me) seriously enough. Later, I’ve told myself, we’ll set up this routine. And of course, later never arrives, so I’m safe from having to be vulnerable.

Six years ago was the last year I incorporated yoga and breathing into my classrooms. I was cheerfully corny as I maintained that the first few minutes of our class would be for checking in and centering, and it was not long before even the kids who at first giggled or rolled their eyes were setting up for breathing without reminders from me. Breathing in 1…2…3. Breathing out 3…2…1. I encouraged my students to make noises on the breaths out – silly noises, stress-relieving noises – and they began taking turns setting and demonstrating the sounds of their choice. Some days we roared like dinosaurs, some days we sighed a cascading scale; we meowed and belly-laughed, oohed and ahhed. More than a few students told me the breathing and small moments of meditation were helping them in other classes and throughout their days, but even among those that never talked about any benefits, there were students who seemed steadier, lighter, more at ease.

I only made these activities a priority for 2 or 3 years, and I stopped bringing them to students when demands were put on my classroom to be more focused, controlled, and guided. The independent and choice-driven elements of my practice were discouraged, my teaching labeled “not rigorous enough,” the routines of my classroom considered too loose. I believed that the goal of routine-building was to work towards a point where students knew what to do and could move through the routines without needing my guidance. I believed, and still believe, in student ownership of routines and systems. But the administration didn’t believe in me. And quite suddenly, I found I couldn’t bring myself to take the risk of being silly. I couldn’t risk not being taken seriously, not imparting the importance and weight of my class onto my students and admin. I couldn’t ask them to close their eyes and breathe, or stand up and shake out their shimmies, because the unimpressed gaze of my trying-to-be-cool teenagers would fill me with dread and uncertainty. I couldn’t hear myself whispering this back then, but I can hear it now, when I think back on it: You’ll get in trouble.

It’s not at all surprising that not feeling secure enough to take small risks led me to take fewer “big” risks, too. My practice suffered, everything from classroom management to realizing my ideas and plans feeling wobbly and off, and self-doubt pushed me steadily toward the door that led Out of Teaching. I drew the lines around me tighter and tighter, afraid to step outside of the space I saw as allotted to me. Anytime I tried to remember my values and step back into what I believed, someone’s side-eye or negative comment would derail me completely. How could I be silly, or genuine, or put any trust in my abilities and knowledge? Even the little corner I had painted myself into wasn’t entirely safe. Writing from our lives, culturally and currently relevant teaching, choice-driven writing, outside-the-box projects…so much of what had made my classrooms exciting and engaging for the students on the edges now lay beyond my reach. Someday, I kept telling myself. Later.

But, of course, it was no day, never.

This year, despite all of the anxiety and overwhelm that comes with a new year, a new school, new systems and people and protocols, I decided I am not waiting for someday. Because, today is someday. So why not today?

My biggest, most promising (to drive us up the wall) class and I began our 2nd week together with Brain Breathing, a name I give small mindful breathing practices. My students giggled, and stared at me like I had asked them to stand on their heads, and one or two sucked their teeth. Breathing in 1…2…3. I coached them, leaning towards them as I walked by and gesturing to my ears like, “I can’t heeeeeear youuuuuu.” Breathing out 3…2…1. The student who has already seized the mantle of Yes I’ll Go There exhaled with a loud, bearlike grunt. “Yes!” I cheered, as the class tittered. “Everyone do that this time, big noise when you breathe out. Ok, ready? Breathing in!”

When we breathed out, I pressed my lips together and let them ripple with my exhalation as I gave a high-pitched squeak, trilling like some kind of parakeet. 25 students looked at me with delighted eyes, ready to try it with me the next time.

 

Make ‘Em Say, “Huh?”: The Value of Confusion

“Confusion is a state of understanding.” – Sheridan Blau

I only recently discovered Vicki Vinton’s wonderful blog, To Make A Prairie, and my life is already better! I came across this post on confusion, and my heart sang out. I had just come from a coffee date with a friend, M, and I was still reeling from the tales she had told me.

At M’s school, no student is supposed to be confused, ever. Teachers are expected to “assess student understanding” every 15 minutes, and if students are “not getting it,” teachers are expected to teach the same information again the next lesson. I imagine that this seems like a beautiful vision to many people (probably few of them teachers) – a utopian classroom where everyone understands everything and no students ever feel out of their depth.

Of course, if you know your dystopia (and you should), you know that 1984 and Brave New World and The Hunger Games all feature nightmares of society that came to pass because of similar attempts at perfection. And if you allow yourself some speculative fiction and ask yourself, “If this goes on…” you will likely come to the conclusion that eliminating confusion from the learning process is not only impossible, but a terrible idea.

Confusion gets a bad rap. We think of “I don’t know,” as dirty words, a forbidden admission. We hate to say it, and we hate to hear it. And as teacher evaluation systems attempt to link a teacher’s effectiveness to test-based measures of student progress, “I don’t know” starts to sound like, “You failed.”

I think part of the problem is that people like to think of learning as a linear process that looks something like this:

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In a linear process like this, confusion is equal to failure. If a learner cannot progress to, “Now I know!” after being taught a lesson, then the teacher has failed the learner, and the learner has failed himself. The linear model does not account for what happens in between the lesson and “successful” learning. Thinking linearly, we can’t appreciate that learners are touching down on “I think I know,” or “I know this much.” A straight line like this does not account for the learner connecting new information to existing understandings, wondering how these fit together, and experimenting with revised ideas. Neither does it acknowledge that learners are likely to return to “I don’t know,” during a moment of anxiety, like when they are questioned in class or given a test. Learning on a straight line, there’s no appreciation for the deepening of thought, or the reality that understanding is layered; it changes as the learner changes, evolves as she reflects and revisits.

The truth of learning, though, is that it is a recursive, ongoing process. Philosophers debated the concepts of knowledge and learning for a reason: because it is messy and twisty, and very much not a straight line. It probably looks more like this:

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Moving from “I don’t know,” to “Now I know,” isn’t going to happen in a neat series of steps. Great minds are always quoted saying something along these lines: learning comes from failure, mistakes create knowledge, grit means not quitting when things are tough. Ad campaigns infect us with slogans derived from these beliefs: impossible is nothing, says Nike. Such advertising works for a reason.

The idea that learning is a shapelier process than a 1-2-3 sequence may seem off-putting to those who seek to evaluate it. And for those who hope to dictate how teachers should teach, acknowledging that learning is not uniform or straightforward is probably pretty scary (at least annoying). It would certainly take more work. The checklist systems many evaluators favor would not be as useful in an environment that welcomed confusion. But one could argue that those checklist systems are already failing, because they can award high marks to lessons that do not encourage students to grapple with their learning, work through their confusion, even learn to understand that confusion is not failure, but progress.

Last week, during my after-school class, some of my students sat by the wall where I display the quotes we have discussed in class, rereading past quotes and remarking on their favorites. Mohamadou turned to me. “My favorite is, ‘Do not spoil what you have by wishing for what you have not.'” he paused, turning over the remaining words in his mind. “‘Remember that what you have today…was once…what you only hoped for.’ Something like that. That’s a good one.” I smiled at that, remembering the day they came in to find the Epicurus quote on the board (right before Thanksgiving, of course). I remember their crumpled faces, their lips moving silently as they reread and reread. Had I snapped a photo, it would have been the very picture of confusion. But they worked. Hard. They waded into their uncertainty and sloshed through the mire, and they found a way through. I was so proud of them, and I knew I was doing something right, because they were so proud of themselves. They had faced that confusion, and they didn’t turn back. And Mohamadou sits in my classroom months later, reciting (almost perfectly) these words that presented such a puzzle, required such a feat.

If we teach students to fear or avoid confusion, then what are we teaching? What are they learning? If students learn that they can’t ever be confused, then almost anything will become too big a challenge to attempt.

What role does confusion play in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments!

 

Nerdy Book Club!

I have a post on Nerdy Book Club today! (eeeeeee!) This is pretty much a dream come true for me. I love NBC and the amazing writers who post there, and I’m so honored to see my name on the blog.

Of course, I did a lot of reflecting on myself as a writer, and a teacher of writing, as I drafted and redrafted this post. I worked with my Writing Project buddies on Google Docs, and while I’ve thought about having student writing groups use Google Docs for collaboration (student-student interaction vs. student-teacher interaction), this experience gave me a sense of how that could work. Having multiple voices on my drafts wasn’t overwhelming, as I’ve feared. It was really helpful to have comments building off one another, different writers focusing on different aspects of the draft. Christy and I had a valuable experience regarding my use of “it’s not,” and the different ways that phrase can be read. I’m always reminding my students that readers can’t climb into a writer’s mind, so diction and explanation are important. This moment with “it’s not,” was a perfect example of how a phrase can mean one thing to the writer and another to the reader, and now I have an authentic document to share with my students. The comments that show our “aha!” moment alone are great examples of how to be a supportive writing partner. I’m proud not only of the piece we worked on together, but of the experience of working on it and the depth it gives my teaching.

See? I’m a perfect fit for a nerdy-themed blog 🙂

I’m so thankful to Donalyn Miller and the Nerdy Book Club community for posting my thoughts on the issue of bookshaming. Seemingly harmless comments that disguise insult as argument, bookshaming can turn readers off by belittling their accomplishments and replacing the joy of reading with anxiety and fear of rejection. Check out the post here!

Edublog nominations!

I love giving thanks & rewarding good work, so here are my nominations for this year’s Edublog awards.

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  • Best individual blog: Christopher Lehman has been fantastically inspiring for me this year. 
  • Best group blog: Nerdy Book Club, duh. 
  • Best new blog: Teaching Impact in Urban Bilingual Settings is off to a good start!
  • Best class blog
  • Best student blog
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog: The English Teacher’s Friend is a newsletter & may be ineligible, but I love it so much.
  • Best teacher blog: Two Writing Teachers just make my day. 
  • Best library / librarian blog
  • Best administrator blog
  • Most influential blog post of the year
  • Best individual tweeter: I enjoy @neilhimself
  • Best twitter hashtag: #reading. Simple pleasures. 
  • Best free web tool
  • Best educational use of audio / video / visual / podcast
  • Best educational wiki: I only recently discovered Storykeepers, but I like it so much.
  • Best open PD / unconference / webinar series
  • Best educational use of a social network: #sixword on Twitter is my favorite.
  • Best mobile app
  • Lifetime achievement

I need to read more blogs! I can’t wait for nominees to be announced so I can scout out some reading. 

Nominations are only open until tomorrow! Click here to nominate your favorite blogs!

Alive

I hate posts like this. But I just needed to let you, & me, know that I am still here.

There’s a list of posts I need to write in my notebook. It’s been growing steadily. First, teaching got in the way, a challenge I had expected to face. Trying to be a better teacher, a different teacher, means working harder and working more and being more exhausted. I had planned to figure out a way to balance all of this. I’m still working on that.

Do you have any advice? How do you balance all of the demands of teaching, or blogging, or living in general? 

You’ll hear from me soon.