Monday, May 18, 2015

Why You Matter..

Like most of us, I am feeling the familiar burn at the end of the year, and beginning to doubt all the hard work put in.  Did I do enough?  Did my students really learn anything?  How could I have kept that one kid from dropping out?
These were the questions running through my mind as I drove to work this morning.  Then I took a second to skim my Twitter feed and found this gem via Shaina Glass:

It was a great reminder that the Year Is Not Over.  There is still time to make a difference, time to impact, time to learn, time to create change, and time to do more.

And then, in my first period class I encountered a second reminder.  I noticed one of my students sitting at his desk, no work in hand, a forlorn look stretched across his face.  I sat next to him and the conversation went like so... (name changed of course)

Me "Joe, what's up?  Where is your work?"

Joe (eyes watering): "It's gone. Someone took my binder and all my work was in it.  I'll just get a zero."

Me (hiding the anger I feel about the stolen work):  "Well.  You still have time, and I will let you have a little more.  No reason to give up."

Joe (stares.. ignores me)

Me (I just get up and walk away.  I want him to decompress a bit.  What should I say...I walk around and assist other students as needed.  After about 5 minutes I come back and sit next to him.)

Synopsis of longer version:
I proceed to have a conversation with him about life and how unfair it can be and how that doesn't change when you get older.  Life can be brutal, and at times almost rip you in two.  But, what we have to learn is how to overcome the obstacles and most importantly not let our emotions dictate what we do.  I tell him that I know he is strong enough and smart enough to get the work done and not to give up.  I tell him that if he needs to go the bathroom and yell that he can and should.
Then I left him alone to decide what he wanted to do.

A few minutes later I noticed him quietly writing, and I made sure to let him know how proud I was of him as he left for his next class.  He had decided to write a second version of the stolen poem.

The moral of the story isn't that I am some magical wizard who can move mountains, but that there is still work to be done.  It would have been much easier to just let him sit, or just give him a grade for the work he had completed.  After all, I had seen it with my own eyes. He is a good student and always gets his work done, why not just let him off the hook.  I mean... it is the end of the year and as one student put it "we have finished our test..what more do we need to learn?" (a comment that almost sent me off the rails, but one that resonated and helped me make sure our last lesson was a meaningful challenge)  But what message would I have sent to him, to all the others working feverishly to get the job done?  That the above comment by student X was true?? That my expectations had somehow lowered after the test?? That I didn't believe he could overcome a highly frustrating and annoying event??
As usual I was reminded how important a role we play in learning by a student.  He reminded me that our work as teachers is never done, and that we have one of the most important jobs in the world.  We shape young minds.  As I've stated before, we are the purveyors of intellect, the curators of human capitol in a variety of forms.  Each day we have the opportunity to make a difference, and so we push on.
Holding him accountable and setting high expectations forced me to do the same for myself.  I wasn't sure what to say right away, which is one reason I had to walk away.  I took time to think about how he felt, how I would feel, and what I do daily in the same situations.  That 5 minutes was crucial in helping me figure out what to say.  It is so easy when we are frustrated to let our own emotions drive us to say too little or not enough.  Letting him off the hook or allowing my own emotional state of the day dictate my response would have made me a fraud, and the students would have learned from that instead.  I thought of a post I read by Josh Stumpenhorst titled They Are Watching.  It really stuck with me, and continues to help me when I find myself struggling for the right response or reaction.

So if you too are feeling the end of the year doubt creep in or the summer slide hitting a bit early, keep your head up and remember that what you do still matters.  Even when it seems like the students are already gone and you feel like you are talking to a wall, fight on and live for the little wins.    If you start to wonder if you matter, I'm here to tell you that you do..even on your worst day.  Kids will be kids and teens will be teens, a bunch of Silent Bobs. They won't tell you how much you meant until senior year or the day they invite you to their wedding.  It might not always seem like it, but everything you do matters and each day that you choose to show up and try to be your best is a day that changes the lives of those around you.

I look to my PLN for support and strength and can say that they play a huge role in helping me when things get tough.  So if you don't have one, get one!  Thanks to all of you around the world who teach and inspire me daily:)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Why students need frustration

Frustration leads to learning, so why aren't why isn't there more of it in education?

My students are currently working on what I have named the American Teen Project.  I got the idea after watching a piece on The Veteran Photo Project, and a book I have called It's Complicated: The American Teenager.  I come up with a lot of great ideas while watching or listening to the news.  You can check out the instructions here, and use them if you like.  We will be sharing our final product on Twitter.

We are on day three of the project.  The first day (a Friday) I spent time in class going over the concept, introducing the required pieces and discussing expectations.  They were then given the weekend to take the required two photographs.  They returned on Monday, and we reviewed what a manifesto is and they were given time to draft.
As we all know, a manifesto is short and sweet.  However, it is a meaningful piece of writing and usually is in a very different format than the students are used to writing in.

Yesterday was such a great day.  It was a great day for me, and a FRUSTRATING day for the students.  This feeling is what drives me to blog today.  I often hear teachers and administrators discussing the concept of student frustration, and they often feel that there is no place for it in the classroom.
Isn't frustration a natural part of life? Isn't it our job to help students learn to not only succeed when feeling frustrated, but to flourish?  Think about it..... What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King or Marie Curie had just decided to avoid frustration?  What a sad world we would live in, and what a sad bunch of individuals they would have been.
Frustration is a natural part of the learning process, and a sign that learning is occurring.
I believe we need to frustrate our students more.
Because of this belief I viewed yesterday as a success.  Students were frustrated and made comments like "this is hard."  When I asked them what made it hard they responded, "Because you are making us think."
Now, I believe they have to think in their other classes too.  I know I have made them think before.  But the thinking was very controlled and confined.  I believe we often give them too much and ask them to do too little.  We scaffold, explain and put everything in a box.   I find this to be a huge issue in ELA because of testing.  Students are often taught only one way to write, and therefore only one way to generate/display ideas. This works and is necessary for some lessons.   But, we must also give them room to struggle and allow them a space to problem solve.  We must let them find their own answers, their own instructions and models.  We must ask them to THINK, to seek out information, and to ask probing questions related to what they are learning. Writing and thinking are by nature messy.  Neither is clean or linear until a final draft is complete.  Such is thinking.  But if we never give students the opportunity to refine this thinking through independent inquiry, then how will they ever be able to do it? And this is the root of the frustration. I ask them to do something they have not done a lot of, and naturally there is pushback.  "Think and figure it out on your own," I tell them.

This is what we do as adults isn't it,  and  this is what the 21st century job market demands.  So why aren't we creating more of these moments in our classes??  What exactly are we afraid of?

So far the students are feeling more confident today.  They worked on revising and editing their manifestos.  Some of them finally had their aha moment and began an actual draft.  They looked to each other and Google for answers.  They looked to me for guidance.  The frustration level was limited, and the learning enhanced.

A wonderful day indeed.