Sunday, December 6, 2009

One More Reason to Love Teaching

Kids and the things they do. Last year I attended the Persons of Color Conference/ Students for Diversity Leadership Conference. This is an annual conference for Independent and Private School from across the country that specifically address issues and concerns for faculty and students of color. Last year I went as an extra body and had one of those trans-formative moments as person, let alone as a teacher. This year I was privileged once again to take some adventurous teens to the conference in Denver. You can follow our exploits here.

These are the kind of experiences where I get to witness students learning and growing right in front of me. I am in awe of these young women and the promise they hold for the future.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fear and Love and Hate

Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.
-"The Prince", by Nicolo Machiavelli
Many a teacher has been cautioned by their mentors to "never smile before Christmas." I think this goes hand in hand with the advice given to me from Jim Smith (Master Teacher and god-of-all-unit-leaders) about how it is easier to start out tough and then lighten up, than the other way around. Classroom management and discipline is one of the hardest things to master as a teacher and it took me almost twenty years to develop my own style. In fact, it took me over twenty years of trial and error, hundreds of miserable teenagers, and quite a few irate parents to get to what Jim Fay describes in one short book. So the Machiavellian teacher is usually the new teacher and they will find that it is easier to be feared. But there is more to Nicolo's particular chapter and style that many have overlooked.
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated...
This is where I think a teacher can go very very wrong if they don't pay attention to the rest of what Nicolo has to say. Having students fear you is one thing, but you have to ask yourself if they hate you. Hate is a two way street: if they despise you, then it is very likely you feel the same way about them. And let's be honest about why we teach and what brought us to teaching. On some level we love kids and want to open the world for them. I think that at first it is easier to "come down hard" and "be feared than loved," but, even by Machiavelli's own account, it takes greater strength to inspire both.

To be honest, a lot of my students have a healthy fear of me and part of that is simply my personality while part of it I deliberately cultivate. I never raise my voice in anger, I never punish, I rarely call home; and yet, I have had no discipline problems in class or salle (fencing studio) in over twenty years. My students and I openly acknowledge this and they learn to take comfort in our relationship. They admit that they were once terrified of me, they are bemused at my sardonic attitude toward that fear, and they freely concede that I am "not so bad" once they get to know me. Not so bad: but not a party in my classroom either. And no, we are not friends - friendly, but never friends. In other words, they know that I do not hate them and they return the courtesy by not hating me. It is an honest relationship.

How have I done this? I can only explain my approach and I hope that you can figure out your own style.

My first lesson of the year is about names and identity. It is a safe way for students to share their self image with me and for me to demystify the aura of the ogre about me. I have them get out their brand new writing journals and on the very first page they write their full name. I then ask them to write for a sustained, five minutes about the "story" behind their name (e.g. Where did it come from? Who chose it? What, if any, is the special meaning? etc). After they are done writing, I break the ice and write my full name on the whiteboard and then tell them the story behind it. By the time I am done, they know a little about my family, its traditions, and the details of my multi-ethnic heritage. In just  few minutes I become human to them and it starts to get more difficult to hate me.

Usually, bolstered by my risk, their stories start to flow about their names and identity: I can only love them for that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Anarchy and Tyranny

One of my favorite quotes comes from the back of a police cruiser. No, it's not what you think.

I used to work out at a gym that was in the same building as my fencing club. This was a real gym: hard-wood floors, lots of free weights, and lots of mirrors for the body builders. It was not a "fitness center" where there is carpeting, air-conditioning, and mirrors to check out the opposite sex. Because of the type of place it had a lot of Watertown's Finest there and I got know some of the local police: which was good in case we had trouble at the club. Once, during a particularly nasty Massachusetts winter day, one of these guys gave me a lift in his cruiser to the bus stop.

For giggles, I asked if I could right in the back like a real perp, and he said it was a good day to do it since he had just cleaned out the back seat from a the weekend (don't ask - it is someone else's story to tell). So there I am, sitting in the back and trying to imagine what it would feel like if I was really in trouble and I look up to see a quote he has put up on the Plexiglas partition for all his "guests" to read as they sat there as they really were in trouble. It read: "Freedom without discipline is anarchy: Discipline without freedom is tyranny." I asked him about it and he said it was a quote from Nyerere, the President of Tanzania. He said it gave a lot of back seat riders something to think about while they had the time and it reminded him to be professional. I was impressed.

The thing about cops and teachers is that we have a lot in common. We are underpaid, overworked, and under appreciated. We see people on their worst days and we are still expected to make a go of it. We are in the unhappy position of enforcing rules we did not create. We have to de-escalate confrontations with the people we are trying to serve and protect. (as an aside, I always drop that I am a teacher when pulled over, and so far it has gotten me lighter citations than what I probably should have gotten). In short, we are the disciplinarians.

I keep this quote around in my head and sometimes on my signature on my e-mail. It reminds me that I have to be professional and gives the students, parents, teachers, and administrators I correspond with lens with which to view me. Because when all is said and done, we are the peace keepers in and out of our classroom and it is classroom management that is one of the toughest parts of a teacher's job. If we fail to learn this, then our classrooms will go in either the direction of tyranny or in the direction of anarchy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Appeal for George Milton

There are teachers and then there are educators. The latter are usually to be found in offices or headquarters and are particularly fond of writing about teaching. The former can be found in classrooms with the students or at the games with the parents. I fancy myself a teacher that writes about education; this blog is my third attempt to do so and in the form of stories. And this particular story begins with my constant quest for alternative assessments (i.e. "tests") and a chance conversation with a parent at one of my students' soccer game.

This parent happens to be a lawyer and related to me the alternative methods one of his law professors used to teach legal theory. To be honest, some of it (well, a lot of it) was over my head and I kept up as well as my "Law and Order" experience would allow. What I did understand right away was that this professor must have been my kind of teacher and that this parent was a really interesting guy. No surprise, really, since I have taught and currently teach two of his children: both of whom are exceptionally smart. At any rate, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon and I thought nothing more of it until I was on the elliptical machine later on.

It occurs to me that I have resources in my students' parents that I hadn't considered before. I get out the Student Handbook and make the call. I asked him what he thought about helping me put together an often suggested, but rarely implemented, "test" for "Of Mice and Men": putting George Milton on trial for the murder of Lennie Small. He was thrilled with the idea. As he got excited, I got excited. Under his advice, we decided to go with a "Mock Appeal" rather than the mock rial format. Since we will run this with 8th graders, we needed to make it as simple as possible as possible. With a mock appeal set up, there would be not need for witnesses or cross examination. The students could focus their attention on the facts of the "case" and demonstrate their understanding of the plot.

Later, I worked with an Upper School teacher to hammer out the details of how to actually grade such an assessment whilst my new colleague worked on creating the format we would use. The end result is to provide the students with about three days of preparation, divide them into three groups, and then run the simulated appellate court. The students will treat the novella as a court record from a previous trial where George was convicted of murder. With this in mind, all students write two "briefs" in outline form that detail evidence for both sides of the case.

So here is the break down:
I. Wednesday: Introduce the situation where George Milton has been convicted of murder and his lawyers want an appeal. Explain the "law" we created and give them a overview of an appeal process. Their home assignment will be to close read the sections of the novella that they think are pertinent to these "laws."

II. Thursday: The class will summarize the book and share points of evidence with each other. I will explain how the appellate court will work and review our legal "definitions" of murder and mercy killing. Their home assignment will be to generate two outlines of briefs for both the appellant and appellee side, complete with items of evidence from the book and with page references.

III. Friday: Divide the class into three teams and give each team their tasks and responsibilities.
A. Team one and two will serve as Appellant Side and Appellee Side (respectively) and work towards to building their case on their best two arguments. Defense Team: one Senior Partner, two Junior Partners, ans two Research Associates. Prosecution Team: One District Attorney, two Assistant District Attorneys, and two Research Assistants.
B. The third team will be the Appellate Judges and will use their outlines to generate at least two questions they will want to ask both parties. Home assignment will be to review their notes and prepare over the weekend.

IV. Monday: Mock Appeal Day. 

  • 5 Minutes set-up and organization
  • 6 Minutes for Appellant to present (they should expect to be interrupted by Judges' questions)
  • 6 Minutes for Appellee to present (same expectations as above)
  • 3 Minutes for each side to rebut
  • 5 minutes for extra questions from Judges
  • 5 minutes for judges to adjourn and vote. Majority and Dissenting Opinions to be outline by both sides of the Justices.
  • 8-10 Minutes for wrap-up and debriefing.

I see the final grade comprised of 20 points for research(10 points for collecting evidence for both sides of the issue) and 10 points for class participation during the trial. I will serve as the Bailiff and my parent co-conspirator will serve as Parliamentarian. I will provide an actual lesson plan and rubric later. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Once more into the breach, dear friends

Yet again, I embark on the public blog project. For the third time I shall try to create a forum for teachers and like minded individuals. This time, I will see if keeping a theme will help: a theme of story-telling.

One of my favorite stories was the epic journey of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and others as they took a great chance in trusting their friend and found a new home despite overwhelming odds. If they can find the courage, then so can we.