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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Personal Teaching

This is a video I use to introduce myself to students at the beginning of the year. 

"I am From" 

I never thought that I would be a teacher. I wanted to be an actress, on a stage in New York - trying on other people's lives. Or I thought that I might be a psychologist - another empathetic profession. Or, for a while, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was the lawyer of my family, arguing every point, angling for a lighter sentence for the accused. I thought for a while I wanted to be president, however my dad kindly informed me (when I was a mere pup of 14 or so) that I had already done things that might preclude a run for president. Thanks, Dad.

I ended up as a teacher largely by accident, and like most of us I hated middle school. Now for nine months of every year I go to middle school five days a week. Crazy. Unexpected. I struggle with the ways that being a middle school teacher shapes me, maybe even changes me. Sometimes I feel like it makes me someone who isn't a lot of fun. Someone who is constantly saying things like, "Pull-up-your-pants. Nobody wants to see that." and, "What should you be doing right now?" I also am a confiscator of "I <3 Booby" bracelets. Wow! How did I get here?

I know teachers who find ways to integrate themselves and their teaching more fully than I seem to be able to. My husband, Joe, teaches college composition and does great job of bringing himself into the classroom. It allows his students the license to do the same, and to be as engaged as he is in the world of the heart and ideas. The Joe I know and the one that teaches those kids are the same person, excited and exciting - no holds barred. My brother-in-law Scott teaches high school. He and I had an engrossing conversation last summer during a car ride from Seattle to Salem (Scott - Please forgive me if I get some of the details wrong). He teaches at a school that is project based. I had asked him how he prepares for the upcoming year. He described his immersion in the culture of India for the upcoming year's theme. He checked out every book he could find and took out the desks so that students could sit on the floor on cushions. Class started every day with a quiet meditation time. The thing that struck me is that Scott's learning is integral to his teaching. His process makes him more Scott, not less.

It is summer now and I am reveling in the time I have. I read, I write, I am cooking gorgeous food. I have plenty of time for swimming with my friends, taking care of my physical person... Hell, I have plenty of time to sleep and no alarm clock! I know for those of you who don't have an academic schedule this sounds like an embarrassment of riches... It is and maybe I should just take my lumps; be less me for part of the year and then wallow in my freedom for a few months every summer. Somehow, I think that I am cheating myself and my students if I am content with half measures.

One career I did want when I was a child was to make a school; one that fosters students' innate curiosity and helps them grow to their best selves.  

Secret Spaces 2 Ordrup
School in Denmark with 'private spaces' for children
I went to a conference last week and one of the presentations gave me a bit of school envy. It was about the design of places of learning. My experience working in public schools in the U.S. reveals that it is difficult to change the paint color; imagine what superintendents would say to a hallway like the one below or to private spaces similar to the cubbies above. Our answer to school reform is testing and 'accountability'. Sigh... There  is a lot more that we could and should be doing to re-form our schools.
Big net play structure
Yuyu-no-mori Nursery School in Japan uses a giant net for their  3rd floor hallway
What would the school look like that would allow teachers and students to be their authentic selves? What can I do to make my classroom that place for me and my students?

...and a poem to close. Students who have disabilities struggle valiantly to fit into the mold of industrialized education. 

Dominic’s hair

looks sweaty. When I see him
in the hall He says Feel my head. We do not
touch students, his hair looks greasy
and damp, like the man in the rubber room
his eyes are mad and shift. I don’t want to
touch him
but I do. His hair is soft,
downy, dry. Carefully, my fingers
touch – There is a small bump, an egg.

Dominic was breaking pencils
on his head,
in Seventh Grade Life Science. Nobody
noticed, except his friends – who
thought it was funny.

in the morning before
school, three weeks ago
– the superglue
Dominic brought to affix the head of his bacteriophage
proved too enticing – again to his friends. They glued
together their thumbs and forefingers. In the end
Joel got it in the eye. I told the principal

Dominic has Tourette’s. He is a good kid.
He is just like the rest of the boys,

skittering toward lunch detention,
jail or an early grave.

Today I took Dominic
to meet the tech teacher. On his way out
Nice to meet you. He said,
shaking her hand.
Odd, from the mouth of a thirteen-
year-old. Stilted, formal. Just
like the rest of us.


  1. so good to hear your voice. i had read your intro before, but it is more than the words, seeing the pictures and hearing you saying it makes it so much more real.

    I barely survived middle school, and didn't survive high school. This was despite the presence of not just one or two, but many excellent teachers. They were able to give me enjoyable learning experiences, able to pique my curiosity (not hard to do, in my case) and teach me to use my brain better, but they could not lighten the overall misery that was the social millieu and they could not convince me that I could ever mold myself to be happy inside the institutions that make up modern life.

    I was lucky to be able to revisit middle school as Rowan's parent. The public school was just as I remembered it, and her sufferings there were also just what I remembered. Thank God there also existed in our town a small private middle/high school run by free-thinking non-conformists. Bill and Laurie and the teachers they employed were wonderful at creating a student-led curriculum and using community resources to let the kids chart individual courses that fulfilled state requirements. The student body was largely made up of kids who didn't fit into the system in one way or another - home schooled kids, misfits, weird geniuses, kids with disabilities of one sort or another.

    There was a zero tolerance for bullying or disharmony. REALLY. If kids were having social troubles that interfered with their learning, the whole day would stop, and it wouldn't start again until issues had been resolved (at least, for now). Cruelty was flat out not allowed, and children had to work together peacefully even if they disliked each other personally. It was amazing to see how Rowan flowered once she no longer had to worry about being picked on or taunted, and when she was allowed to be her oddball self instead of being constantly hounded to tone it down and fit in.

    Of course Wellspring had other problems (such as glaring gaps in basic knowledge) but I was thrilled to discover a school whose primary purpose wasn't enforcing behavioral conformity first and education second.
    God bless the wonderful teachers out there (you surely are one of them) who can and do recognize and respect the uniqueness of their students. Helping kids to shine and express themselves academically inside of a system that is not conducive to that goal is lifesaving work.

  2. Thanks Aimee - I think you bring up a really valid point. A place where children can be their authentic selves means they would not be bullied for being who they are. People need to feel safe in order to be curious about the world around them. It really isn't enough to be safe in an individual classroom either. Relationships that happen in the hallway follow them into the classroom...

    I am really happy that you found a safe place for Rowan.