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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Fractured Landscape of Adolescent Education

Elementary schools are largely set up to be warm, welcoming places for young students.  Primary colors, hopeful books, and consistent teachers make up an academic world, where 6-year olds learn what to expect, when to expect it, and how they should participate.

Imagine the shock to the system, when you start to have different teachers, in different classrooms, for each subject.  Rotating schedules, bells, and constant variety rule, where once consistency was the major theme.  

Are our middle and high schools set up purposefully in response to changing adolescent needs?

Does the variety serve a need for excitement and experimentation as the young develop?

Are we helping our students figure out WHO THEY ARE?
As Nakkula and Toshails recommend as the pivotal task of adolescence?

I am not sure our schools are purposefully doing this.  It may be a by-product of some administrators and many teachers who devote their careers to building young people up, but to me it feels less the primary goal than creating conformity in the most efficient way possible.

Our education system is often driven by economics, and linear solutions, rather than sound individual student based practices.  I hear the question "how many students can we fit in a classroom?" much more often than "how can we inspire our students to crave knowledge?"  I still see more rows and desks, than tables and learning centers.  School boards and unions discuss test scores, salary and benefits much more contentiously than the citizens who graduate from their programs.

As Erikson takes us through the adolescent attempts to fit or MISfit, we can see how our model would allow students to sample various classroom settings, interact with adults who have very different styles, and experience a range of course offerings, hopefully connecting in one or more areas, and discovering elements of their identity.  The unfortunate reality, is that far too often, the school day is something to "get through" and many students are lucky to connect with one or two teachers in middle and high school, whose "co-authoring" resonates valuably.

In place of these connections, we have standards, and test scores, and limitations (for a variety of reasons), and lose sight of the fact that we are in the critical position of growing humans.  I found myself, throughout the reading of the text this week, reminiscing over my teaching practice, and core beliefs over my career.  I found this snapshot of the essential questions driving my first semester work from two years ago, and if I still had the same phone from 10 years ago, I think I would be able to pull up a similar whiteboard:

I have always been interested in learning about my students, and helping them develop through their adolescence.  I was fortunate enough to have a couple of teachers, mentors, and coaches in high school who were there to help me question and figure out the path I was on, and the path I wanted to be on, and how to get there.  I hope to be that person for my students as well.  This is often, though, in conflict with the academic tasks I have been given as a teacher, and I have had to creatively restructure my practice to accommodate my requirements with my beliefs.  Thankfully literature lends itself perfectly to this task, and young adult literature specifically offers the chance to explore risky themes, and deep questions in safe environment.

I believe deeply in the transcendent possibilities of literature, and that a young person who is searching, and maybe not able to trust other humans with risky questions, can find connections and the collective mind/flow experience detailed in the Nakkula and Toshails text.  

Risk is discussed in depth in chapters 2 and 3, and we adequately cover the normalcy of teenage risk taking during this period.  What I think needs to be taken further, is the role peer pressure plays in the types of risk that is being taken.  There is powerful motivation found within the need to fit in, and when coupled with the natural desire to test the limits of adult parameters, can often lead to what was referred to as spontaneous or intuitive risk taking.

Check out this video on Peer Pressure and Risk:

I am reminded of my own efforts in tanking exams so as not to stand out academically, which probably began in 6th or 7th grade, and my first experience with power drinking in the 9th grade, and it is clear to me that peer pressure was more of an influence in those cases than risk taking on its own. Marcia touches on this in the Erikson extension, but I believe it is an even bigger factor than what is stated, and much more complicated to intervene in.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Sacred Place

When I was in middle school, I had a stock lecture on "A Sacred Place" and when Ayers mentions it on pg. 102, it took me back to that almost word for word. That being said....

Heady stuff this week!

For a comic book (I know, I know, a graphic novel), there was not much comedy to be found in the 2nd half of Ayers Journey.  He asks us to consider what it takes to be a GREAT teacher.  Not a competent teacher, or a decent teacher, or even a professional teacher.  Ayers uses the qualifier GOOD for schools, and gives us amazing examples of the community schools that made their world the way they wanted/needed it to be.  Clearly the word GOOD was not enough for what is expected of teachers, Ayers again and again demands that we push to be GREAT.

Of course this makes perfect sense.  I never set out to be adequate anything.  I never dreamed that when I grew up, I could be a serviceable cog.  If we don't aspire to greatness, how can we inspire our students to do so?  If we survive day-to-day, then no matter what words we put on the board, or literature we introduce, or magic rabbits we try to pull out of the hat, we send the message that manageable is the expectation and the norm, and our students are learning that lesson over and over each time we project it.  I think the competitive opportunities I experienced as a young person formed me in a way to push to be excellent, and that to accept mediocrity was to accept losing.  But there were many other influences as well.

There were two films, whose images I could not shake while reading the 2nd half of the Ayers, and whose influence in my decision to become a teacher are deeply intertwined.  In 1989, Robin Williams played Mr. Keating, a counterculture teacher in the stodgiest of schools for boys.  From ripping pages out of schoolbooks, to marching in the courtyard, to giving the boys sneak peaks at the hidden imagery found in the best poems, Keating does everything he can to inspire their young minds.  I believe in the transcendent possibility of film (and literature, and art, and music...), and the way this teacher builds relationships, and cares so obviously about his students resonated with me.  

Mr. Holland's Opus took a different route, but to the same destination.  In this film, Richard Dreyfuss' character goes into teaching reluctantly, after a lack of success as a professional musician.  Mr. Holland struggles for years, and the movie comes very close to losing the viewer because there is just no movement toward resolution of his rote classroom practices.  Thankfully, help comes.  In the form of other teachers who Holland builds relationships with, and thankfully with the students, the first of which is an unfortunate girl who he is tutoring in the clarinet, and despite no natural ability and no discernible aptitude, she will not give up.  In a monumental scene, he decides to throw the instruction out the window and learn about her.  Armed with this new information, he tries a non-traditional approach to the music lesson, and he reaches her - scaffolding as high art - and she gets it.  As begrudgingly as his teaching career began, Mr Holland figures out that it is about the people, and his students' lives become his master symphony.  

When I think of great teaching, these are two of the references (of many) that I draw on. Although I often fall short of greatness, as we all do, I think the concept of desiring to be great, and striving for improvement continue to benefit my classroom, my students, and myself. 

Understanding Youth took me in a completely different direction.  I could not read through the introduction and first chapter without flashing back to so many moments I have had with my students over the last 15 years.  How many Antwon's have I known?  How many have I helped? How many have I pushed further into their own negative convictions about the way teaching and learning happens.  How many throwaway comments have found sensitive ears?  Thanks Dr. Horwitz for making me feel crappy and guilty and awful. (kidding) I guess what I take away most from the first chapter of Nakkula and Toshails, is that we are intertwined within the lives of young people for a set amount of time, but the effects of what happens in that time do not end when our time together is up, it becomes part of both of us, and affects us, and molds us, and shifts us, and we should be more mindful of how we choose to spend it together.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Jose LaLuz has such a sad, sad face

"School failure fit Jose and followed him like a shadow." -pg. 6

Ayers captures in this image and quote, a face I have seen far too often in my lifelong relationship with education.  If I go back far enough, I am sure there were many, many moments when this look of despair appeared on my own mug.  It starts with excitement, an attempt to connect and respond with a force that could move the world, and with just a comment, or the failed recognition of the moment, is exhausted like the wind billowing out of the sails, only to be replaced by the emotion of giving up.  This feeling, if fueled, can manifest in the permanent wearing of this mask, and the longer it continues, the more permanent it becomes.

Luckily, we are uplifted in the next slide, and we see Jose with a different face, one of concentration, full engagement, and excitement, why he almost looks happy.  Our hero Bill sees this, but for so many Jose's, educators never do; and while Jose triumphantly fulfills the leadership role that might just re-engage him with school, for too many of our students, this opportunity never comes.

I am lucky enough to be working in a program where the focus and size require me to get to know each student deeply as an individual.  My first month of school is spent probing their successes and stumbles, and finding the reinforcements that draw them out of the protective shells they have built to buffer them from an education system that is not working for them.  I often mark the breakthroughs by the arguments that we encourage, because they allow the students unfiltered moments, and often times room for growth.

This is in stark contrast to Quinn, who we are introduced to on pg. 14.  The "weirdos with the clipboards" observe him in his classroom without enough background knowledge, compassion, competence, or empathy, and discuss him, making judgements that have no bearing.  In a tell-tale slide, one of them is incapable of cutting an apple with the plastic knife supplied by the school and while ignored, Quinn makes a peanut-butter mess.  Left to his own devices, Bill would most likely have sliced the apple, engaged Quinn, and rolled right along.  Ayers challenges us to "see each other generously and whole, rather than bit by behavioral bit" and this section speaks to the mistrust, and autocratic system, which tries to apply black and white rules and assessments to people who come in all shades.

The building bridges section felt a little disconnected and jumpy to me, as I read it straight through. It was only when I finished and re-skimmed it, that the metaphor of a twisting road, with many stops along the way, occurred to me. As Ayers describes to us the importance of finding ways to reach from the content to our students, and from our students to the content, he is interrupted by memories of skillful teachers who made those connections.  The more I consider the chapter, the more I connect with the idea that we are constantly assembling what we know with what we are learning, and sorting and shifting the entire time.  You listen to a story, and think of one similar, then it continues, and you make other connections.  I often read now with google open, and by the end of the session I have multiple tabs open to more deeply connect with the content.  I think Ayers is trying to get us to this conclusion when he asks us to "speak with the possibility of being heard, and listen with the possibility of being changed" which is a useful way of considering the way we learn constantly from those around us, and a positive connection to the Smith article from last week.

One final link, thank you for expanding my vocabulary Dr. Horwitz:   Mushfake it til you make it

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

SOMETHING is being learned, WHETHER WE WANT IT OR NOT, ALL the time.

   While reading the Smith article for this week, I found it eerie, how deeply it resonated with me, and more specifically, how tangibly it brought me right back to a situation I was involved in a few years ago.
     Smith speaks concretely about what students are learning, and how it can be very contrasting to what is the intended lesson, and while I was at the middle school, there was a conscious push to revise the manner in which we dealt with discipline and student behavioral expectations.  In theory, the changes made sense, when a student was misbehaving or acting out, the classroom teacher would call for support, and a behavior specialist would remove the student for redirection and re-engagement.  The student would then be returned to class, when the specialist deemed they were "ready to learn."  The intended message of this style of intervention, was that by supporting our students more, and listening to them, rather than punishing them or dictating to them, we would better serve the needs of the individual, and, in-turn, the whole.  In practice, this turned out to be a disaster. There were not enough supports (staff and training) to execute this system as thoroughly as it needed to be, and students quickly LEARNED, that there were no consequences for their behavior.  The change started slowly, but as a snowball turns into an avalanche, it progressed quickly from there.  Initially students started to roam the halls, talk back to faculty, and disrupt class somewhat more frequently, but as the message got out that there were no actual consequences for their behavior, the escalation began, and before the end of the year, students - middle school kids - were lighting fires in the bathroom, jumping out second story windows, threatening teachers with violence, and destroying school property in shocking degrees.

   The school maintained a 0% out of school suspension rate that year, and our in-school suspension room was shut down due to lack of staffing.  These students (about 10% of the 7-8th grade, and 5% of the 6th grade) were in-class, in front of the teachers they had threatened, every day.  We learned many things as a school community that year, some students learned they could do whatever they wanted, and could disrupt teaching constantly with impunity, students who wanted to achieve learned that their needs would be pushed off to accommodate a few troublemakers, borderline students learned it was easier to follow their peers who were disruptive and not get picked on, than to listen to their teachers and be subject to relentless bullying.  Teachers learned not to call for support, because it was unlikely to come, better to just try and ignore as much as you can, then quietly give up...a little each day.  We learned to shut our doors and keep our heads down and our mouths shut rather than make waves and risk being labeled "inefficient."  These lessons were effortless, and have never been forgotten.  Many teachers left that year and since, and while things have never been quite that difficult in the following years, the students and faculty bear scars to this day from the "lessons" we learned that year.
     On a more uplifting note, I have been thinking about all the things I know how to do, in relationship to our class discussion last week.  I have also been thinking about what my children can do, and what my students can do, and the universal thread through all of those things, is the excitement and growth that accompanies all of the learning involved.  I learned to read, because my parents read to me, my children read because I read to them, not once in a while, but as a norm.  I went to a varsity soccer game this week, and I watched as our boy's team showed a deft ability to keep spacing, and exhibit tremendous "touch " with the ball, and it was obvious that this was not something coach had taught them in practice, but something that was their norm.
     I memorized my times tables in fourth grade, and I can recite my Hail Mary in French because we chanted those things every day, but I resist math at every turn, and can't speak or understand French at all.  That type of learning was isolated and stagnant, and I struggle now to watch my daughter (who is in 7th grade) carry a 5 pound math text to and from school every day, and grind through 40 or 50 homework problems every night.  Is this "broccoli", and she should partake of it because it is good for her, or is this type of "official learning" stifling her creativity and desire to learn?  I found it interesting that Smith used the word "archetypal" to describe the official process of learning, because it immediately connected with a presentation from Sir Ken Robinson which deems our system of education as "outdated and detrimental."
     I aspire to guide the students I teach to a process of authentic learning, and have intentional elements of prioritizing the second classroom in my practice, but I worry about the space between the material, when much of the learning takes place, and desperately want to ensure that the lessons that last from my time with them are valuable and worthwhile.