Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Time to Disturb the Universe

It's the week before Christmas break, and everyone's tired. The kids are restless and unfocused...except for the eighth graders in my school, who are preparing for the annual O'Dellmer III project.  O'Dellmer III is an Earth-like planet inhabitable by humans, and the kids, who hope that their team will be selected by NASA to colonize it, must create a government system to protect its new citizens, select green energy sources to construct there while protecting its environment, and share their plans with their grade level in a multimedia presentation.  Christmas may be coming, but the kids are still focused on learning.

While students work in small groups, spread across three adjoining rooms, I wander from place toplace, listen in, ask questions, and answer a million questions. Some students have chosen a dictatorship for their planet. "It's easier because you don't have to have a Preamble to your Constitution," says one student, "or even a Constitution."  "But assassination is also easy," replies another boy. Although these two are not working in the same group, a lively discussion about the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of government ensues.  "Communism looks good in theory, but I don't think it's ever worked," observes one boy.  In the end, the first student has decided that his planet will have a government modeled after our own.   The reason for his choice?  It's the most familiar, and therefore, the easiest to work with (he IS still a kid). 

Others are debating the laws they'll have for their planet and the rights they'll reserve for their citizens. They're thinking deeply about their own personal values and trying to decide how best to create a world where they would want to live.  Some students share their idealism and attempt to create a system of government that they hope will result in world peace. Others declare that world peace is impossible, that conflict and violence are inevitable.  Everywhere I turn, I find thoughtful discussions and students using excellent problem-solving skills.  (Yes, they are normal eighth graders, and they do come up with weird middle school ideas, like growing Dorritos as major crops, having a jello-like substance for terrain, domesticating dinosaurs and using them for transportation,etc., but the point is, they are meaningfully engaged in school work.)

I remind students that complex problems cannot have emotional solutions. I ask them to examine their decisions to determine whether they really reflect their values.  We learn from each other. Everyone who contributes to this project will take away knowledge they can keep. Although I've oversimplified the explanation of the project expectations here, I'm certain it's clear that higher order thinking skills are strongly emphasized.

Another colleague and I sat down recently to design a project-based learning experience for our seventh graders for the spring. We were excited to break down the walls between language arts, social studies, and science, and plan meaningful, engaging learning experiences for our students. Then I had a horrible thought. I pulled up the state testing schedule for the spring, and it looks like our school computers will be reserved for testing for approximately three months, severely limiting, if not completely eliminating, our ability to use computers for student instruction. We're making plans anyway, and hoping for the best.

The test itself is a newly developed assessment which will be given this year only as a placeholder until a new test is developed. The data we receive from it will have no meaning, as it will be a baseline for nothing and cannot be compared to any previous test. But the testing company must make its money, and the state must still have a way to define winners and losers.  I have no idea what's going to be on this one time only test, but I'm positive that none of the skills my students are gaining from project-based learning will be measured. A large part of me would like to tell the state what they can do with their test.  I want to refuse to subject my students to the hours and hours of testing that will replace their instructional time (after which none will feel successful or motivated or even competent).  

But I have too much to lose.  Outside of the classroom, there's no one colonizing another planet and shaping it to reflect their ideals. On my new planet, when the politicians and the testing companies come, we'll lock them out of the building and teach. Who's with me?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Digital Islands

"We read to know we are not alone."   - C.S. Lewis

At the end of last school year, a parent emailed the seventh grade English teacher wanting to know if and how her advanced children would be challenged in eighth grade English, my class. Using a workshop approach for most of my teaching career, I'm used to differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students working at a variety of levels and abilities in my classroom, but the question made me wonder if I was really doing enough for those advanced readers and writers. Are my expectations high enough for them?

After attending a technology convention last spring, I became excited about the idea of cyber book clubs, and after rounding up my most enthusiastic future students and introducing them to the concept, they agreed that this sounded like a great way for them to read and engage in higher level discussions with others who were willing to participate.  They were not interested in doing extra work, but they wanted something to do that would stretch them as learners.  Over the summer, I set up an account on a website called Collaborize Classroom, and tried to figure out how this was going to work.

To make a long story short, a few weeks into the experiment, I felt underwhelmed by its success. I polled the students to determine whether or not their perceptions mirrored my own, and they sort of did. While they enjoyed going to the site to engage in discussion about books by responding to one another's posts, the students were only visiting the website when prompted to do so. What they said was missing was a more in-depth face to face conversation about  books and reading with other thoughtful readers. I had replaced human interaction with digital interaction, and a sense of connectivity with others was lost.

Really, I should have predicted this in the first place. People are frequently more tuned in to their electronic devices than they are to the human beings who are physically present. But given the choice between staring at a smart phone and reading a book or interfacing with their friends, the type of students I am attempting to challenge are much less interested in the electronic device.

With input from the kids, I've gone back to the drawing board to design something more meaningful for them and for me. Sure, we'll keep some sort of a web presence so that students can create a wall for book recommendations. This is what they think is appropriate and helpful. They understand that good readers always have a "next book" list going.  But time for human interaction in reading and writing circles will replace the cyber book club.While I won't get many bonus points on my teacher evaluation for incorporating technology into the classroom with this project, I expect the outcome will make the loss worth it.  We'll keep tweaking it until we get it right. That's what learning is about.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Miraculous Gelatinous Globs

I work in a germ factory, and the bugs got busy early this year. Watching students sneeze on their desks all day makes me cringe. I instinctively  back away to some place I figure is out of the line of fire, but realistically, I'm sure I'm exposed to everything the kids carry in the door.  They aren't concerned at all with the prevention of spreading their germs. "Mrs. Boswell, can I go to the bathroom? My stomach hurts really bad!" is too often uttered dangerously close to my face, no matter how quickly I try to back up.

And then I get a call from my own kids, college students, and I listen to them sniffle and and cough and talk about their worries and their joys and wish there were some way to protect us all from the ailments, physical, mental, and emotional, life has to offer.

A few weeks ago a colleague introduced me to water kefir grains. I had never heard of them before and set about researching them myself as soon as I got home from work. These rather unappetizing-looking little gelatinous globs of goodness mixed with water and sugar create a beverage that works as a probiotic.  Reading as many articles as I could put my hands on, I learned that water kefir is credited with boosting immunity, lowering stress, improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, clearing up flawed complexions, improving the ability to focus, treating ADHD and depression, improving digestion, preventing some forms of cancer, and even shrinking tumors one already has to name a few of its alleged benfits. These gooey lumps of bacteria and yeast sounded like the cure for almost everything. I had to buy some!

I placed my Amazon order and waited eagerly for the substance that would change my life and the lives of my family members. While everyone else suffered winter illnesses, we would remain immune. We'd be happier, healthier, smarter, stronger, and maybe even better looking. Who knows?

It only took a few days for my grains to arrive, and I started fermenting them right away. The first few batches of kefir water weren't very fizzy, and the drink had a weird, yeasty smell and taste about it. I was disappointed, I'll admit.  But I kept working at it, experimenting with different fermentation times and with different flavorings, and I sent some up to my kids in college.  My batches of kefir water got better and tastier, and I started drinking it every day. After they had had their kefir grains for about a week, my son came home from college, and I offered him a glass of my kefir water, which he enjoyed. And then he confessed that he and his sister had not tried theirs yet. "We were afraid," he told me. And if they ended up not liking it, they weren't sure what they should tell me.

I can't say that I really feel stronger, healthier, happier, smarter, more focused, or better looking since I've been drinking the kefir water, but I am hopeful that drinking something healthy for me will help keep me from getting sick this winter. My students are still sneezing all over everything, and I still cringe, but I've decided not to get sick. I don't really know if the kids are taking care of their kefir grains and drinking the product regularly, but I am hopeful that they are and that it will make a difference for their health. I want them to be happy, healthy, strong, and smart.  Even at my age, I still want to believe in miracles. If not for myself, at least for my children.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Disturbances in the Force

I've been feeling uncharacteristically negative lately, and the reason for my foul attitude finally dawned on me. During the summer, I can easily fit in a variety of regular exercise. Now that my time is no longer my own, it's much more difficult to work in time for fitness.  After school meetings, grading papers, lesson plans, after school meetings, in addition to keeping up a household and more after school meetings makes it very easy to skip the afternoon workout I might have every intention of completing.  The later I get home, the later I'll be up finishing work for the next day. It's a terrible habit, and I've been paying for it. It's time to make a change. 

It would come as no surprise to those who know me that I was never an athlete. Growing up, I read books and practiced music. Running for any respectable distance was simply beyond me, and I have always joked that if you threw something at me, I was most likely to duck.  Regular physical activity came to me later in life, and after experiencing first hand the benefits of increased strength, lower stress levels, and a new sense of confidence, I knew I could never return to a sedentary life. 

As working out became easier, I began to set new challenges for myself. I started distance cycling because I didn't know I could do it. It turns out I can. Two years ago, I challenged myself to try running. I've never understood runners. When I pass them on my bike and observe their tormented facial expressions, I struggle to reconcile what I see with the passion they express when they talk about running. Runners are addicts. Miserable-looking addicts.  Some of my colleagues were trying out the Couch to 5K running approach with considerable success, so I started too.  As an incentive to keep going, I signed up for the Warrior Dash, a 5K race with obstacles.  This would cost me money, so I couldn't back out, and I was determined not to die. It took me well over an hour to get through it, and unlike other people who ran in packs, I did it on my own.  The end of the race required me to leap over fire, and I eventually lost a toenail because of my unfortunate landing, but the confidence I gained from attempting to do something I didn't know I could do was well worth the loss. Besides, a very attractive new toenail grew in within a few months, so that's all good now. 

After developing plantar fasciitis and now arthritis in one of my knees, I've been advised by three different doctors to give up on running. But knowing I need exercise so that I can be nice to people, I have settled on a compromise (which I haven't shared with any of them): I only run downhill.  Perhaps my running days are almost officially over, but I know I'll find some other exercise to take its place. (I must admit here, I never really learned to enjoy running; it mostly feels great when you stop). Whether I'm attending yoga classes, working out at a facility with weights and elliptical machines, or riding my bicycle, working out helps me face the challenges of work and life more effectively.  Working out in the afternoon on my way home allows me to process a difficult day and prepare to go back in the next day with a better attitude. 

No more excuses. I'm packing up my gym bag tonight and scheduling my workouts for the week. Taking time to take care of me will make me more positive and effective at my job, and I'll be nicer to people. The classroom is no place for a pessimist. If you haven't started the habit yet, go out and exercise. Do what you can do. It'll change your life. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Impossible Things

"Why make a fuss about this particular impossible thing?"  - from Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I got discouraged this week by all of the impossibilties of the job. Every year it seems I have more to do and less time to do it. I spend most of my waking hours, and some of my dreaming hours, thinking about the classroom, composing a neverending narrative in my head of what comes next, and how that will connect to what follows. Of course, as budgets have been slashed by the state, there are fewer of us in the building, and we have larger classes to teach and more subjects, so there are multiple narratives I must compose.

Additionally, last year, I took on the task of helping to drive the school improvement process.  Logically, teachers are the ones who should do this work since we are the ones who have to make the changes necessary for improvement, but it's a tall order when you're already overbooked, and it's yet another narrative to contribute to.  With all of these responsibilities and then some, there is no down time in my day, and the exhaustion that results often leaves me questioning my own abilities. Surrounded by constant need, sometimes I just don't have anything left to give. Meanwhile, a growing pile of papers that need to be graded is taking over my desk.

Maybe the last straw this week came when I was filling out the annual Highly Qualified paperwork for the state. This is my twenty-third year to teach, and yet, every year I have to complete this ridiculous form for the state demonstrating exactly HOW I'm highly qualified to teach what I teach. I find it demoralizing every time.

But then the kids come in and get excited about a book we're reading. Mrs. Boswell, I've been reading ahead. Is that okay?  Mrs. Boswell, is there a sequel to this book?  THERE IS??? What's it called???Will you read it to us??? Please??? Mrs. Boswell, look at the picture I found (a student shows me an artist's rendition of a chupacabra in a book he found on mythical creatures and wants to pass it around the room becuse it's mentioned in a book we're reading together). Mrs. Boswell, can I join the cyber book club?  When do we get to start posting there?  A student comes in before school to find a quiet place to read in my room - she was up late reading last night, and her addiction carries over into the morning. She quietly giggles at her desk as she reads.

I wrote a letter to a student who is in basic training for the marines a few weeks ago, and I received a letter back this week. I wanted to encourage him, but when I wrote, I really expected that my letter would mean more to his mother than it would to him. On Facebook yesterday, his mother described how happy her son was when he received my letter, and she wanted to remind teachers of their importance in the lives of their students.  She pointed out that long after they leave your classroom, you are still remembered and valued. She expressed appreciation to our school district for having the kind of teachers who have cared for and influenced her children.

The eagerness of my students to learn and their enthusiasm for the books they are reading recharges my own dying batteries. A letter from a former student and the gratefulness of his mother help me out of my slump.It's about relationships. Always about relationships.

I begin to dream about possibilities again.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Quantify THIS!

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."  - Albert Einstein

How do you know that what you're doing in your classroom is really effective?

I'm going to be asked this question. School board members are going to want this information presented to them in numbers. 

It's the third day of school, and I have a history class engaged in a discussion in anticipation of a book we are about to read together. Students who have me for both history and language arts often scratch their heads and wonder which class is which.  We do so much reading and writing in history, it's difficult to distinguish between the two disciplines. Novels in the history classroom help humanize the subject, so we read.

I've asked them to think and write about the quote, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Students are leading the discussion, calling upon one another instead of waiting for me to choose the next speaker, looking at each other as they speak, responding to each others' comments, and thinking deeply about the questions I've posed. It has become a conversation about human nature, how human it is to make a mistake, and how human it is to judge others.

Students are referencing other books they've read and considering how they themselves might be affected by the attainment of power.

No one is interrupting or blurting out answers.

No one is looking at a cell phone.

They are referencing each other by saying, "I like what _______ said because..."

I'm watching and listening in awe.  It's a great compliment to use someone's name when you are speaking.  You're saying, "Not only have I heard you, but I found your ideas important enough to consider and repeat and add to."  These kids are 13 years old.  I've had most of them in class in the previous year or two, and I've worked with them on respectful listening skills, but I haven't yet discussed the power "piggy-backing" on the words of others and showing respect by mentioning their names.  They've somehow made the leap on their own.

The kids are trying to decide whether or not everyone is susceptible to abusing power. A girl raises her hand, and someone calls on her to speak. I can tell she's still processing what she's going to say, trying to figure out how to put what she's thinking into words.  Her brows are furrowed, and her eyes narrow as if this will help bring her thoughts into clearer focus.

She says that while some people get sick all the time, there are others who never seem to catch the viruses that are going around.  But if the virus is strong enough, even a person who never gets sick could still catch it. Maybe power is like that.  The rest of the class applauds.

I want a whole world full of people who listen and communicate this well.

How do I know when instruction is effective?  I know when I'm awestruck. I can't translate that feeling into numbers.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Diving Back into the Fray

It is one week before the official first day of school.  I have dutifully analyzed the data from a test that will no longer be given in order to boost student achievement on a test that has not yet been written, at least as far as I know (Joseph Heller must be chuckling to himself somewhere in the universe). 

But that's not really where my heart is. Data doesn't have a human face.  The children who walk into my classroom next week will be looking to me to engage their minds, many expecting that I won't. If I focus too much on the data as I plan my lessons, I'll fail them.

To me, a successful classroom looks like a caring community.  I want students who recognize each other as human beings, listen to each other, build each other up, and help each other learn. In a world filled with terrible listeners (and ineffective communicators), this may be a tall order, but I'm going to try anyway.

So how do I make this happen?  Not to take away from other educators out there, but I won't be passing around a roll of toilet paper on the first day of school to get kids to provide one personal fact for every square they've taken.  I want my students engaged in substantive conversations early and often, and I don't believe traditional team building activities will accomplish much more than some awkward giggles from uncomfortable people. I'm not here to say that I've found the answer to this question.  The truth is, my search for material to begin engaging conversations is exactly what has me stuck. Sort of. I'm considering various reading material as a springboard for conversation.

Here are my top contenders:

Listening is an Act of Love (recorded interviews of everyday people through the StoryCorps project) 
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio - the story of a boy with a sever facial deformity who is about to attend public school for the first time in his life
The Schwa Was Here, by Neil Shusterman, a YA novel that addresses the theme of invisibility (both literally and figuratively)

Each of these books is full of valuable life lessons and would be great to read aloud, but I haven't decided what I want to do yet.  All I know is that teaching my students the material they need to know in order to do better on the next nebulous assessment won't accomplish anything if they don't first feel that they are valuable members of a learning community, and that when they speak, others really hear what they have to say. 

The world would be a better place if everyone had powerful listening skills. The idealist in me wants a better world, and so far, higher test scores haven't proven to accomplish that.