ready to climb

I do not bungie jump, or mountain bike or run marathons. I hike an occasional hill, but serious backpacking does not frequent my to-do list. Yet today as I sat buried in a pile of papers, books and snack wrappers I began to realize something monumental. Amidst all of my don’t-do’s and all those challenges I so easily back down from, teaching has always been one I face head on. It is my Everest. Impossible, imposing and treacherous. But I welcome the cold, breath-taking feat.

As if it isn’t enough to simply get to the top of Mount Everest, I’ve also begun to realize that I don’t like to take the easy route. Not the elevator, not the stairs. I like the slow, winding, unbeaten path. The one with crags and mud, and an occasional snake here and there (I won’t mention any names). Teaching is a task that I know is entirely possible, but not everyone can do it. It takes training and perseverance and a thirst for more.

I can think of some people who claim that they “teach.” These are the people who claim that they like to “camp” but really have an air conditioned RV with a 40″ tv inside. I don’t mean to belittle what they do. Certainly, it’s an experience with it’s share of challenges. But if you can come home from a day of teaching without a little mud on your face, you weren’t really teaching.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim to be a saint. Nor do I claim to be God’s gift to education. I am lazy and unmotivated many of the days and often uncertain my efforts will ever make much of a difference. But without getting too spiritual about it, teaching and learning are two things I actually believe in. They exist, they are powerful and they change lives. But this act of teaching and this blessing of learning are not natural, givens in our current educational system. They are squeezed out of dire situations, like the last drop of shampoo after you’ve already added water to make it go further.

I believe in the power of good education. Like believing in the wind because you see the effects of the wind. Or better yet, it’s like believing in a hurricane. There’s no denying it, because it you can see the trees being blown over and feel the pelting rain sting your skin. Education saved my good friend from taking his life when he was fourteen. It showed me that I was able to learn science, even when my high school teacher told me that I couldn’t. It’s how a fellow teacher of mine became an influential leader in migrant education after she was told she should “just be a maid or secretary.” It’s the dream of discovering treatments for cancer because you learned all too soon what it does if you don’t catch it soon enough. Teaching and learning are the seeds for miraculous potential.

So as I sit here and peer over my daunting task-list and preparations to climb Everest these next few months, I breathe deeply because I know it is possible. People have made it to the top. Surely, it wasn’t easy. But they made it.

© 2011 D. Willson

no car

Some people choose to not own a car. Some people can’t afford one. Others do not have drivers licenses. The last two are the main reason that many of my students do not attend after school functions. I did not take this into account when I planned my Parent Night. I thought, if I offer free food and gifts, then surely they will come! Then when I began to talk about it, the students began to wilt. My dad does the driving, my uncle is using our car, my mom can’t drive, we can’t come. I can’t give them all rides, so what am I supposed to do? This event that is intended to create bridges and opportunities for parents to become more involved further alienated them and disappointed my students. I could see it in their eyes, one more thing that they wouldn’t be able enjoy.During our conference “scramble” at the beginning of the year, teachers come together to plan conference times for families. Many of the students I serve were commented on. “Oh, put them at 7:30 in the morning. They never show up any way.” And sure enough, when conferences rolled around, only a good 30% of my student’s parents actually showed up. I had to go pick up one family. The uncle had called the school to explain that they weren’t going to make it. He said it in very broken English and did not understand when our secretary tried to reschedule. He had the only phone and was leaving to go to a job with their father. When we called back, he was no longer home. I decided to go over to the house to pick them up. I walked up to the small, disheveled home and knocked on the door. The oldest answered and looked very surprised. Her mother was still in her pajamas and breakfast still littered the table as she scurried around to clean exclaiming, “lo siento para mi casa.”

As her eldest translated, I explained that I could bring them to the conferences. I asked Melina how many would be coming and a small child peeked around the corner. Turns out there were more than I expected! But I didn’t want to try to figure out how to explain that I could not legally drive all five of them in my car. So we just went with it. Walking out the front door, we hear a door slam next door. Suddenly I hear, “So you don’t need a ride then? Thanks for telling me. Next time don’t ask…” The neighbor is livid. The mother begins to panic, directing her middle child to go to tell her that they were so sorry. She kept putting her hands to her head. With mother crying and the fourth grader awkwardly trying to explain to an upset neighbor, I am unsure whether to go ahead with it.

I tried to call out to the neighbor and explain that they didn’t know I was coming and that it wasn’t their fault. The neighbor muttered to herself and slammed back into her house as she exited the scene. We all stood around. I apologized and the mother just shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. So we all piled in my car, illegally with the child on the mother’s lap. I attempted to speak Spanish as best I could as we drove up the long road to the school. All that for one ride. I don’t care what anyone says…there is no way that I believe that immigrants have it easy. Living one day in that environment would leave me feeling unsure and devalued. This is daily life for this family. No wonder it is a challenge to increase parent involvement among ELL students.

© 2011 D. Willson

the game

Since beginning the book “The Game of School,” the message has been like a nagging conscience on my shoulder while I teach.  Nagging might be a harsh description.  The premise behind the book is that teaching and school are a game.  Early on, students learn that school is about work, behavior and pleasing the teacher.  As the years go on, students are slowly losing their natural interest and knack for learning.  They slowly become sorted into the “winners” and “losers” of this game.  If you are good at sitting still and listening and are geeked to bring the teacher an apple, you win (according to the grades and sticker chart measures that we use).  If you can’t sit still, are bored or are disinterested there is something innately wrong with you.  You lose because you aren’t good at the game.

Every lesson I’ve been teaching this past month I have asked myself, how much of what I do is because of “the game” and how much is because I truly want these students to learn.  I’ve retaught some lessons after reading about teachers who blame the kids after a lesson goes poorly.  This occurred two weeks ago during a literacy lesson I taught to my 6th grade special education reading group.  Maybe it’s because these students, for one reason or another, are not very good at this game called school.  And as 6th graders, it takes a lot more preparation on the teacher’s part to create authentic learning because it’s not as easy to get them excited for reading.  I admitted to the students that I knew the lesson had fallen apart and that I think it was because of me and a little because of them.  The 6th graders were shocked because everything is usually their fault.  Once they understood the purpose a little better, they were more willing to participate.

Lately I’ve felt like this new conscience has helped me be incredible at times, but at other times I feel completely frustrated.  This is because it has revealed how very poor some of my lessons are.  Or how they only meet one or two of the students needs at the time.  Today I thought I was going to have the most amazing lesson.  I chose random items around the room and placed them in a bag.  Then I taught a lesson on describing the items.  A student of mine who is in my ELL group but is at a higher proficiency level than the other students was sitting with sheer boredom on her face.  I asked her what was wrong and she hesitated.  I then asked again and she began to say something that most of the students would never dare say to a teacher.  “This game is too easy for me.”

Many students have learned that you do what the teacher asks you and you don’t complain.  The game truly was geared towards the other students.  The other students whose language needs are much higher.  Admittedly, my first reaction was that she was being rude.  How could she have the audacity to tell me my lesson was boring?  Then I thought more closely about this incident.  I was reactive because I felt defensive of my lesson, defensive of my time (how can I possibly plan a lesson that meets ALL of their language needs) and defensive of my authority to have children just “do as I say.”

I began to look around and saw that only 3 of the five students were actually doing the game as I had instructed.  Was it a bad game?  I have begun to look at behavior not as a problem, but a litmus test of lesson quality.  If kids truly have a natural inquisitive mind and intrigue with learning, where did my lesson fall short?  Some of the kids that are “good at school” were doing what I asked.  The others were playing with the items, not listening to each other and doing everything but the activity.

Were my directions not explicit enough?  Did they not buy-in to the “fun” that my game had promised.  Why did I even want them to describe items in a bag?  My objective was that they would use the words to describe “mystery items” in a bag and to use them in a complete sentence.  The goal was to eventually have them compare two items.  What fell apart again?  They were playing with the items…possible causes?  Boredom?  No responsibility to respond or agree?  They were not saying the whole sentence…possible causes?  Misunderstanding of expectations?   Lack of monitoring?

© 2011 D. Willson