Seventy-five percent: it's hard to think that I am three-quarters of the way done with the 2012 University of Illinois Writing Project summer institute. In the past week, I have really been able to narrow my focus on what I want to present in my second video and in my eventual teaching demonstration. I've been reading and reflecting a lot on assessment. I have gotten my hands on so much that I have a hard time finding time to absorb all of the book smarts, let alone all of the wisdom that is being shared with me through other teachers' demos.
As I look back on the last three weeks, I can only conclude that I have rediscovered what some refer to as achieving flow -- that perfect blend of challenge and interest that keeps you motivated and inquisitive. I wish, someday, that I can see that sense of flow from some of my students as they write -- and probably not write something that is so research-intensive, though that would please my 21st century mindset. I look forward to bringing more Echo literacy tasks to my classroom this year, because I think I am finally figuring out how to use them for growth, and more importantly, student interest.
I sure hope I can finish out what I've started. And, well, without using the Fourth of July as my study day.
I've got over 30 recorded minutes of an un-prompted, un-facilitated (probably more like 45+ minute) student debate that spawned out of my classroom today. I only interacted to wave at a voice recorder that I set down at the table. I noticed that something had started as one group turned around to talk to another about their competing solutions to a problem we posed in our latest project. (This past month, students are driven by the question: In light of the pressing financial burden of running our government as-is, how can we as political advisers effectively eliminate one branch of the United States government but still run efficiently as a country?) As two students (who are known for their opinions and leadership in our class) picked apart each other's arguments for their solutions, one table turned around... then another walked over... then the class clown(s) noticed and wanted to get a piece of it... and soon we had most of the class circling around this debate that no one prompted... except the students themselves.
What's impressive is that much of the debate was self-sustained by the students themselves. They policed to keep the clowns from interrupting the dialogue. They even stopped to set protocols and try to salvage the debate when tones got testy; interruptions showed rudeness; or listening was not its finest. I was proud. They should be proud, too.
This comes after the heat was turned up under their feet. As a PBL facilitator, what good would our project be if we didn't bring in some real-world experts, right? Well, upon the announcement that our state representative and a city alderman would be on the panel of presentation judges/evaluators, I saw a renewed interest in the project as a whole.
What should we wear in front of them?
Will we have to answer questions from them?
What kinds of questions will they ask?
Is he gonna be mad if we get rid of [the equivalent of] his job?
Talk about authenticity. Well, rigor, too. I don't think I could have motivated/dragged them along to ask the last few, even if I put on a song and dance routine. Not with graphic organizers. Not with deadlines. Not with grades. What I saw today was personal investment because my students asked themselves, "Who am I going to impress tomorrow with my education?" There was quite an energy today in finding out a new, expert audience will be a part of the evaluation process.
Students scrambled to make impressive PowerPoints, get my feedback or practice their timing and transitions between speakers. It was a good day and one which I could never have predicted to show itself on a Monday. With finals coming up -- when all school seems to be winding down and holiday excitement winding the kids up -- I'm glad to see that our group of sophomores is finally "getting" what New Tech is supposed to be all about. Now, let's see what they've got tomorrow.
With the holiday approaching and me now writing about keeping our heads in the game, I walked into a very well-timed "un-meeting" this morning. The idea behind an "un-meeting" was first introduced to me in Daniel Pinks's Drive. I have never started a day with so much laughter. Well, laughter that wasn't coming from podcasts I listen to on my mind-numbing commute to work. In the un-meeting we played a few silly teambuilding games to embarrass ourselves and just generally bring our minds out of the grind. I was very pleased. It's not often we get to celebrate silliness with each other. We see a lot of it in our classrooms, but, just once, the teachers got their recess.
I will likely have a book review coming out soon. Based on recommendations from the English Companion Ning, I ordered and started reading a copy of Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach. The book is a collection of essays from educators who consider the tests of their personal constitution when it comes to teaching. (I figured that it's November now, and I better start bulking up on wisdom before the Midwest weather and time change bogs me down too much.)
I truly believe I have had guided many strides toward facilitating better learning this year. There is no doubt, however, that some of my struggles this year have backed me into a corner and faced me up against the question: How do I make light of that? Last week, after dealing with one situation, a student (who struggles and is now finally not shutting down in environments that frustrate her) quietly gave me a verbal nudge by saying, "Don't let these kids and that stupid comment get to you, Mr. Babocck. It's not worth it." The therapeutic advice (from a teenager) made it into my positives journal; that's for sure. I look forward to sharing it at my school's five-minute, "Positive Friday" meeting (a meeting I do genuinely look forward to otherwise).
This weekend, NCTE 2011 brought a few new ideas for projects and peaked my interest in some efforts around the country (the National Writing Project, for example). But I had hoped the conference would light fire of passion in me and focus on my path for the rest of the year. My travel approval came late, and I was only able to attend Saturday and part of Sunday before returning to work today. I rushed into the middle of the conference and tried my best to focus on getting the most out of it. However, the more I got into the conference, the more I realized there is an ever-looming cloud of doubt surrounding many teachers I ran into and reconnected with or met for the first time.
In the first chapter of Burned In, I read last night about Jim Burke's worst year. Mind you, Burke wrote many of the texts I use to guide my practice. His worst year is the one he's facing now and he illustrates it frighteningly clearly. What's even more troubling for me is that he suspects that his 20 years of teaching have not granted him the experience, wisdom or magic touch that makes this year or his job easier. Yet, his perseverance re-focuses his attention on a bigger goal than what the day-to-day grind appears to be: "Our goal is the learning, not the teaching, and our ultimate prize is when we see our students standing confident and independent and free, doing it all without any more help from us." It's true, we don't show up to "just teach", yet we are continually interrupted by outside forces beyond our control that distract us away from student learning.
As I read this book (that I'm now dedicated to carrying with me until I finish it), I'm left knowing I experience many of the same obstacles, frustrations and feelings of wandering now that even the elders face, too. That is comforting in some ways, but knowing that NCTE also did not rekindle the spark and interest for us is something that I have a hard time digesting. So, does the rest of NCTE carry Burned In, too?
As no critique of the format or the execution, I am left wondering (and frighteningly so) how many of the great, noble minds on stage presenting at NCTE are also in similar fogs as I am reading about now. (I thought it was just young/new teacher blues.) Are we celebrating what we want to celebrate? And I ask that question especially when the texts receiving quite a bit of attention and promotion this year in English teaching have to do with burnout (Burned In) or with re-connecting our heart to the profession (Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom).
Burned In is a book I am fascinated by and one that I will reflect a lot on in order to guide what might be called my "tombstone priorities" (in other words, what we want to be remembered by). In the meantime, I hope that my experience at NCTE 2011 does not reflect that of many other colleagues. In the meantime, I know where to look first for my drive, and that's in my students' learning.
My sophomore group struggles to see the benefits of their education and are unaware of how many opportunities their school provides them. On the first day of the career research unit, I presented them with data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, provided them with some background knowledge and asked them to infer how education impacts annual income. They noticed the “bubble” trend salaries increasing with education, but some students were irritated by these statistics suggesting to them that there are no possibilities of making good money without a degree.
I agreed. There are some people making good money without degrees, but I pointed to the full range of percentages. And then I also pointed out not everyone with a college degree moved up the pay scale. I asked them to instead look at the data and decide what improves just their chances. I started an allusion to board games with multiple size dies and asked them to connect it to the spreadsheet I showed them. Heads started looking around as the idea clicked: the greater the education, the bigger the die, the better the chance of making good money. After that day’s open discussion, I had them interested.
The next day, I told a story about a hard decision my brother faced when he had two internship offers -- one from a small college in California and another closer to home and directly feeding research into NASA. My students were always interested to hear about my family or my rocket scientist brother. I walked them through the many different values and interests my brother used to weigh both options, polling the students along the way. We talked about family, friends, personal relationships, bosses, outlook, short-term challenges, financial or even prestige considerations. We talked about the changing opinions as each variable was introduced. The interest in this cliffhanger ending proved to me that they were hooked. There was such an excitement in the air when they found out that through all of this decision-making, my brother ended up in an internship that led to a very stable career. These two setup lessons lead to a very interested group of students who quickly learned that there is a complicated blend of passion, learned skill or natural talent that goes into choosing a job. We spent weeks on the research and writing process, but the relevance had been proven to them: hard work, education and tough decisions lead to a better chance at success. And we shouldn’t gamble with any of those if we don’t have to.