Monday, December 7, 2009

Musical Chairs (and Desks)

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” ~ Steve Jobs

My journey to becoming the English teacher I wanted to be was mostly about learning to trust my own instincts and filter the advice from others. Today I know that it is also about knowing that I will never reach the perfection I seek - the journey towards that goal is what matters.

When I think back on my early days in the classroom I realize that there was a very visual way to see the evolution of my confidence: the arrangement of my desks.

Phase 1: Rows (assigned seats)– easy to move around, easy to move students around, not great for community

Phase 2: Small Groups (assigned seats) – easy to move around, hard to control without good classroom community, bad for whole-group discussions, hard to keep focused without engaging lessons

Phase 3: Concentric Semicircles (assigned seats)– better for classroom discussions, hard to move around, harder to manage student conflict in, still not easy for everyone to see each other

Phase 4: One Big Circle - great for classroom discussion, hard to move around quickly to be physically near students, okay if you’ve got good classroom community (which by now I was starting to get)

Phase 5: Flexible Seating – Every day is a new day, arrange the desks to fit the lesson, trust students to sit where they are going to be most successful

Getting to my final classroom-setup took time. It took trial and error and understanding of the fact that what works for other teachers doesn’t have to work for me. I went through all these configurations in just 4 months, but what I learned at each stage was essential to moving on to the next.

Though it frustrated me to not get it right the first, second, or even third time – I came to realize that if I wasn’t learning as a teacher, I probably wasn’t being a very good teacher. To this day, I pick myself up after every instructional disaster and find peace in the knowledge that this exact fiasco won’t ever happen again.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Learning Story

(Reposted from Rethink Learning Now)

I recently read through the Gates report - A Silent Epidemic, which chronicled the real reason public schools fail to graduate and adequately prepare our young people - namely boredom in school, and not being pushed to succeed. A solid half of students who drop out are talented and capable. They possess the skills for success, but they do not see how their school experience is meaningful, how it connects to the future. Most importantly, they are not challenged to try hard or apply those talents, by either their peers, who feel the same sort of ambivalence and ennui about the drudgery of school, or their teachers, who fail to connect textbook curriculum to the real world. I think back to my own public school experience, and these findings ring true.

I graduated in the top ten of my high school class, was an honors/AP student, and a success by most standards. (I now have both a B.A. and an M.A. from prestigious private universities.) However I too was bored out of my mind, and performed most of my work out of a sense of duty, responding to a dreaded chore list in all but the one class where I had an inspiring teacher - Mr. Lawrence, who challenged our assumptions, and pushed us beyond adequacy. He treated us with respect and affection, as if we were his own children. He opened our eyes that textbook history always has an agenda, and to be thoughtful of what that agenda is, what the perspective of those who lack power might be, and to never assume that just because we read something in a textbook, that meant it represented the truth. My class painted a mural portrait of him as a surprise, while working on a community project after we finished preparing for the AP exam. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, that teacher was fired because he did not fit the mold. He taught us to think outside the box, and the box seemingly had no place for a non-conformist like him.

When I skipped study hall, a period where attendance and silent participation was mandatory, in order to do an independent study with that very teacher, I got written up and sent to the vice-principal's office. I unsuccessfully tried to argue against the rhetoric of blind rules and compliance. As a student of relative privilege, given my high class standing and good grades, I still chaffed at the lack of room for personal growth, personal responsibility, and most importantly, freedom of choice. However, I had parents with high expectations, and I never once considered dropping out as an option. But what of all those students who don't? They end up as statistics, a sad testament to the inadequacy of de-individuated, traditional public schooling.

This is what fuels my passion for education reform today. There is no reason why we should continually be forced to conform to the same old standard of one-size-fits all schooling. A standard which paints all students with the same wide brush, and leaves so little breathing room or support for creativity and intellectual curiosity; a dreaded "waste" rather than the path to self-realization and opportunity it was meant to be. Remember that credo - "Be cool, Stay in school?" It is our responsibility to make sure that school can be the meaningful experience worth "staying in" for.