Sunday, November 22, 2015

Community should be a verb.

This past week, I resorted to an oldie but goodie elementary school technique -- "The Class Meeting."  Yes, I teach high school now, and yes, I did completely abandon the intended lesson and the be-all-end-all ESSENTIAL QUESTION posted on the board, because, quite frankly, the EQ in my world instantly became,

"How can you go to school with someone DAY AFTER DAY, YEAR AFTER YEAR, and have NO CLUE what that person's NAME is? 

Being your basic neurotic teacher, who is completely convinced that somehow you forgot to teach the most simple building-block skills, one can imagine the sense of shock, surprise, and - yes - GUILT, that I had somehow failed this class of freshmen.  And I wasn't even IN the room when it happened.

We're well into the second marking period, and we've started the "BIG" research paper assignment.  For freshmen, the thought of writing a FIVE PAGE research paper is beyond paralyzing, so we model, we teach, we reteach, we graphically organize, and we bring in guest speakers to assist in the overall success of what appears to be the "first big paper of high school."  On this particular day, my librarian friend was teaching a lesson on In-text Citations, MLA Formatting, and Works Cited Pages.  Riveting, right?

I had stepped into the hallway to talk to the five upper-level kids who are working in a less structured environment, to make sure that their thesis statements were sound.  I was out there less than 90 seconds, when Sara came to the door, reporting that one student had referred to another student with a racially inappropriate name.  We were both pretty dumbfounded at this behavior.

And then it happened.  Somehow, I FELT RESPONSIBLE for letting this class down.  Despite my first day of school anti-curriculum strategy,  these kids haven't bothered to get to know each other.  I thought I had given THEM  a chance to build a sense of community that day -- along with allowing me to get to know them -- but it hadn't happened. I assumed they knew each other, but the truth is that  they enter my classroom every day in small cliques of friends,avoiding other groups in the room.

I get that this class had been through a weird year so far, given that I have been out of school more than I've been there, given my concussion recovery.  Perhaps this is why the guilt I felt caused me to initiate the class meeting. (Or, more likely, the idea of trying to "write up" the entire incident in an electronic reporting system that is less than friendly, leaving the ultimate admonishment to parents and/or an administrator, caused me to go the more time-efficient path.) Regardless of the reason, we got out the green chairs  and got out from behind the desks.  

We sat in a circle, and people were uncomfortably forced encouraged to ask specific questions about each other.  "Where were you born?" "How did you get that scar?" etc.  And then there was a quiet, yet disgusted, voice.

"YOU don't really know her.  And you don't care. She's amazing.  She makes jewelry out of liquid metal.  She draws anime better than anyone in the world."  It was the voice of a supportive classmate that pushed the conversation to a new level.

I owned it.  I told them I had let them down, by not creating the sense of community they needed in my room to be successful.  It wasn't a line -- it was something I truly felt.  

In that one class, we learned that we have a rising singing star and a metalsmith.  We have athletes, and compassionate listeners.  We have people who trust, and people who doubt.

The conversation continued, and went to discussions about fear of ISIS attacks.  One kid asked whether I thought they'd try to attack the US.  Sadly, I said, yes.  Because CVS is sold out of green chairs, and nobody is working to foster a sense of community in the world.

As they waited for the bell at the end of the period, new friends admired the hand-forged ring, and listened to the process used to create it, and a voice said "this was the best class we ever had."  The response?

"The world needs to be more COMMUNITY."

Grammatically perfect, I'd say.  Imagine -- just imagine -- if COMMUNITY could become a verb.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Decisions, Decisions...

This morning, a smiling face walked into my room before the bell rang.  "I feel so RELIEVED!" announced the voice behind the face.  Quite honestly, the announcement was unwarranted, as the entire face, demeanor, and body language was one of someone who had finally HIT SUBMIT on the application to the college of his dreams over the weekend.  The stress is gone -- and now he waits.

I have full confidence in this particular kid's abilities to go to the gorgeous school where he already imagines himself walking through the leaves in the fall of 2016, playing soccer on the quad, and forging his path in this world.  He already loves the school, and I am confident that the admissions panel will instantly love him as well, as they peruse his application, submitted for EARLY DECISION.  Yes, he's made the decision to commit to this relationship -- now he waits for the binding invitation from the college to join them for a four-year commitment.  He described his desire as one of a "pit bull on a treadmill with a steak tied to the handle."  He just can't wait to catch the juicy prize.

Decisions, Decisions.

For guidance counselors, college advisers, and teachers of the gifted, every fall seems like Ground Hog Day this time of year.  The best and the brightest scurry around, surveying, visiting colleges, comparing deals, filling out FAFSAs, and hoping for an invitation to the perfect school at the perfect price, for the following September. Pulling together transcripts, writing countless letters of recommendation, completing applications, with careful writing, proofreading, and rewriting of essays, and a bevy of ability checklists analyzing the strengths of our students. Yes, we're about 12 weeks into this school year, and we're already focused on the next.

Does Early Decision help?  I'd argue that the simple possibility of choosing a college and KNOWING which college is waiting, possibly as early as before the first snowfall, has real impact on stress levels of high school seniors.   Some colleges and universities accept a significant percentage of their incoming class during this early decision period -- topping the list is Cornell, with a whopping 41% of its newbies knowing by Christmas that they'll need UGGS and woolies on their lists for Santa, in anticipation of an Ithaca winter - or four - in their impending future.  In addition to the emotional aspects of Early Decision, is the indisputable statistical proof that "agreeing to agree" early has its advantages.  The college admissions site, "In Like Me," provides valuable data that favors the Early Decision applicant. 

For a Teacher of the Gifted, it's especially difficult to answer the questions on the Common Application.  Who the heck are the "Top Few I've Ever Encountered"?  Clearly a TOG's "Top Few" is truly the gold standard in the student realm, compared to teachers who might be answering the same question having interacted with fewer of the best and the brightest in the school.  This has bothered me for a number of years -- wondering whether those on the other side of the application see a rating and consider that I get to see the true cream of the crop, and that the TOP FEW I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED is truly an accomplishment.  Especially when I've known some of these kids for more than ten years.  

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine in higher education, who assured me that admissions panels DO look at the relationship and roles that recommendation-writers have with the students, and recognize that those of us who spend much of our day with AP, Honors, and Gifted students certainly hand out those "Top Few" ratings to mean exactly that, and honor that recommendation as intended.

So yes, my dear student, rest easy.  Turn off the treadmill, stop chasing that steak, and enjoy your senior year.  Life is about living, and you've done your best. 

Keep Calm.  You've Already Hit Submit.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Fiddlesticks! (AKA "Can I borrow your brain?")

I'm still working half days at school, with the other half of the day reserved for closing my eyes or neurological therapy.  It's an interesting life, but not nearly as interesting as the "normal" life of Susan Heydt, Teacher.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel, although oncoming lights tend to make me rapidly close my eyes in a manner something akin to Dracula at dawn.

My day started with therapy, and I arrived at school before 2nd period ended.  One of my 9th graders came up to me and asked, "Can I borrow your brain for 3rd period?  I really need it to make it through English."

I must admit, it took more than a few seconds to translate the request, and then I realized he was pointing to the brain-shaped stress ball sitting on my desk.  A quick nod and toss, and he was on his way.  He promised to explain to his English teacher why he had it, and how he thought it would help him.  And he promised he wouldn't abuse it and get it confiscated.  He knew I had 3rd period prep, and didn't want to see it go unused.

As promised, it was returned to my room before 4th period began.

No Stress.... 

There are very few of us that are entirely focused all the time, when in a learning environment.  We doodle, zentangle, daydream.  We chew pen caps and fingernails, we fidget and tap.  From a teacher's perspective, it can be downright frustrating to watch the scootching, rocking, and wiggling of students in the classroom.  The societal expectation used to be "feet planted on the floor, straight backs, hands folded "- signifying the "ready to learn" mentality.

There's an increasing understanding among educators that a successful learning environment may not be rows of students arranged alphabetically, facing the front of the room.  I've talked before about the Green Chairs, standing tables, and other seemingly unusual classroom arrangements, and the reality is that teachers are looking for anything that will motivate and encourage learning.  

Check any office supply store -- the same motivation applies to corporate business.   There are ball chairs, finger gizmos, and all sorts of distractors/focusers.  Remember those metallic
balls that click together on the desk of every executive in the 60s?  Or Silly Putty, rubber bands, even baseballs, that are transferred from one hand to another to stimulate focus, creativity and innovation.  Heck, Google, and other big companies, are putting in entire playgrounds for their employees to kick back and chill, while working on the task at hand, building a sense of purpose and community.

Julie Beck talks about the value of stress toys in business in the July issue of The Atlantic, in her article entitled Stress Toys:  Mindlessness with a Purpose?   Interestingly, the business world is looking to educators, and educational research, to defend the use of the very fidget widgets teachers have seen in their classrooms for decades.  (Don't kid a kidder -- even if you weren't GIVEN a token to play with, there was SOMETHING in your desk, or on your body, that you snapped, chewed, twirled, or flicked.)  Simultaneously, educators are drooling at the creative and free environment that seems to be evolving in the business world.  

Do I mind lending my brain, my cow with the bulgy eyes, or my UHU tacky putty to kids to help them focus?  Absolutely not.  As long as they keep all four legs of their chairs on the floor while they're in my room (personal pet peeve, but I digress...), and return the toys at the end of the class, I'm one happy camper.  

And maybe, just maybe, they've learned a little bit more because of their attempt.