Sunday, August 23, 2009

Anticipating the Rubber Hitting the Road

I find myself in the same quandary every year. I can't recall what teaching teens is really like. By now, my eighteenth year of teaching, I feel like Dante at the beginning of The Inferno, midway in life's path with a dark woods, threat of beasts, and a bit off the trail. No, teaching is not a journey through hell despite its rough moments, piles of essays, and lost weekends of work. It's just that I never can recall the pace or timing of teaching until the rubber hits the road.

Maybe I'm not supposed to. Every year is different as every class, every student is unique. And I'm changed, too. Every encounter with students is a new one despite my experience, the tricks in my bag, my attempts to keep up with slang, and the four four-drawer file cabinets filled with instructional materials. I've traveled to Africa this summer to steel the authority of my teaching Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, and read a couple of books on "understanding by design" and "differentiation of instruction" to hone my practice in general.
Yet, students always show me the way. Rather than Virgil, a shade of reason to guide my journey, it's the rationale of student inquiry more than standards, student character more than habits of the mind, and student energy more than AYP (annual yearly progress) that charts the scope and sequence of the year.
Until there are twenty-five students--expectant, tired, nonplussed--facing me and I say "let's see who's here" will I know what teaching is really like again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Out in Africa

Since 2007 when I started this blog, I don’t think I’ve let a month go by without a post. This year I’ve found it difficult to keep up. I’d like to post at least once a week, but working on National Board Certification took its toll and posts dwindled in number and last month I was in Ghana on a Fulbright-Hays group project abroad with little chance to stop at the rare Internet cafes.

Our group of twelve educators participated in fifteen lectures by top experts and visited four regions of Ghana, a country that is a vibrant mix of old and new, urban and rural, a democracy that is reaching toward the future, while remembering its past.

For all Ghananians’ optimism and earnest endeavor to become one of the leading countries of Africa (and a population that is nearly fifty-percent under the age of eighteen), their government apparently underfunds its schools. I found in all of the half dozen schools, students seated at wooden desks, chairs attached that look as if they were there when Ghana achieved independence in 1957. Although a few fluorescent tubes were mounted on the walls and fans hung from the ceilings, all were off to conserve electricity. Students wore bright, clean uniforms and carried oak tag covered notebooks; these I understand are supplied by themselves and not the school.

As much as one can tell from a tour of schools, the students seemed earnest and the teachers dedicated, and they all had the trademark Ghanaian good humor toward life and its problems. Of course, insomuch as bricks and books don’t make a school, the teachers and students achieve despite the lack of both. I saw elementary student notebooks that were printed and illustrated nearly as neatly as a Word document and a high school class of boys studying science unattended while they waited for their teacher to arrive, delayed because of heavy rains.

Yet, in a country that is freckled with cellular phone company kiosks and billboards, I fear the lack of technology in the schools is once again going to leave Ghanaian students without digital skills and more importantly digital paradigms—ways for thinking about and connecting in the world—as my home school wavers over glass and copper fibers for its ethernet.

The contrasts between the schools I visited pale somewhat when compared with the kinship of teachers brought about by the challenges we face, the work we do, and the students we love. When it comes to what these schools lack versus what I find missing in my own classroom, I’m not convinced we’d agree to exchange U.S. electricity and Internet access for the high-valuing education, triumphant sense of community, and focus of mission that I met with the lights out in Africa.