Friday, October 30, 2009


Let's be honest. Kids aren't going to remember what we teach them. Not the content at least and not most of it any way.

Think of how little we remember as adults of our school days? How many of high school lessons come to mind? If you're like me, not many. Over the years, over the lessons, the lectures, the seminars, the books--ideas atop of ideas--it's impossible to sift through the layers of learning. Yet, I bet there are at least 10 days you remember.

My memorable lessons of high school:

  1. When my 9th Grade English teacher caught me watching the snow fall and just said "pretty, huh."

  2. My typing teacher assessing my practice: "There is no pattern to your errors."

  3. Parallel parking in driver's ed, successfully, after a night of practicing in the driveway.

  4. My French teacher singing "Edelweiss" a cappella (in French) and teaching us to do so, too.

  5. Running so close to the side of the track that I knocked the stopwatch out of my coach's hand, and his not getting angry.

  6. The compliment "You have a natural sense of rhythm and movement" from my senior English teacher after I presented a dance interpretation (my first and only one) at a drama club assembly.

  7. The day the principal approved of our starting a student newspaper, after his hesitancy and hedging.

  8. My journalism teacher's allowing me to decide whether to print a damning editorial against an administrator at the risk of her job because "it was all true." (And trusting me not to.)

  9. When my graphic arts teacher suggested I should put my first woodcut in a show.

  10. All of the modern novels my 10th Grade English teacher had me read and that would change my life.
These might seem like small and random moments. Indeed, they are, but in each there's a teacher trusting, reaching, boosting, sharing, or simply being honest with me. I don't remember all my teachers taught me. I remember who they were.

Likewise, your students might not remember Fermat's last theorem, the Battle of Hastings, or the subjunctive tense. But they'll remember you.

Image credit: "Love, Teach, Imagine." By Denise Carbonell. 9 Dec. 2007. Flickr.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Gift the Guest Artist

This month we celebrated National Writing Day at our school with a special guest, an alumna, Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, who had just given birth to her first novel, Thirsty. It was a great time for our students and aspiring writers.

It took me back to times when writers visited the high school I attended as a youth. I recall hanging on their every word as they described the writing life. Once, I read James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" from God's Trombones. It's a poem, the cadence of which sings from the Negro Spiritual. I let the rhythm carry me as I read, but I did not fall in to parody. I didn't realize this, though, until the visiting artist (whose name I can't recall) told me so.

That one moment of critique has stayed with me ever since. I consider the praise and its inherent admonition whenever I practice a recitation of poetry before my students. Having a guest artist is such a priceless gift to students. Now how wonderful your teaching, a guest has the novelty to capture your students rapt attention for a day or two, and their memories for a lifetime. They have clout of experience and an authentic voice to say "good work" completely detached from scores.

O'Keeffe gave our students many treasures during her fleeting visit: ideas, stories, hints, and tips. No doubt some of these gifts will be as lasting in the students' hearts and minds for many years hence.

If you haven't experience the magic a guest artist--a writer, a poet, an actor, a musician, a painter, a dancer--then now is the time to figure one or two into your schedule. For your students' sakes, and for yours.

Image Credit: "Tiffany Gift Box." By Jill Clardy. 26 May 2008. Flickr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Drilling Down

This has been a difficult start to another year of teaching. Seems demands are more numerous and trying out new, innovative strategies with technology are paradoxically piling up next to outdated testing pressures. On one hand we teachers are being held accountable by standardized testing and drill down into the data; and on the other hand we are being told that technology, creative, and performative skills are the way to go. It's like trying to get the moon by digging to the Earth's core: as ineffective and as frustrating.

This past month I've been drilling down on a standardized reading test that is sampling our state's standards. Pennsylvania has 3 reading standards with a total of 35 specific skills defined. Of those 35 skills, 12 have been translated to assessment anchors, or ways of measuring a third of the defined skills. Of those 12, the test samples 9. Of those 9, the questions sample 3 skills 3 times as much, while sampling others only once or twice. So as I drill down on 120 students individually--taking 5-10 minutes on each--my mind wanders and wonders if knowing so little about so little is worth the effort, let alone the time: 10-20 hours, if you do the math. Taking into consideration that the student might not have felt well, had had a difficult time that morning at home, or just didn't care so much to take the test seriously and the worth of standardized test scores wanes in my estimation.
So we've headed the wrong vehicle in the wrong direction to the wrong address.
I worry about my next dozen years or in the classroom, not because of the future, but my past. Before teaching I was in advertising, first the creative end and then the business end. I couldn't stand the marketing numbers. So then I worked for a family run book retailer which emphasized the love of books and knowledge. But they sold they went public and became a national corporate concern--and the concern was price points. I got out and returned to my first love--teaching. Now after 20 years of the testing movement and despite the call for 21st century skills, a dinosaur of data-driven decision-making is starting to bang at my classroom door. Is it time to move on? Or face the dragon? A lesson life keeps presenting might be a lesson worth learning.
Image Credit. "Free Mixed Numbers Texture for Layers." By D. Sharon Pruitt. 18 Nov. 2008. Flickr. Used by permission of Creative Commons License.