Friday, January 24, 2014

Teaching While Awed

It's been a couple of weeks since I wrote about grading papers and I've been thinking a lot about one of the most important experiences I left out when reading student work: Awe.

In Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, he talks about how important awe is to good teaching. Awe is about witnessing, not dissecting. Awe is not about grading, but appreciating.

A teacher needs to have a sense of awe for their subject, meaning recognizing that something within your area of study is greater and far more encompassing than the limits of your comprehension. We are drawn to that large weighty thing in the same way we're drawn to this huge spinning rock in the middle of the universe. Awe gives gravity to our teaching.

(Side note: children, who have not been robbed of their innocence, are deeply in touch with their sense of awe--and that's why they are the best students.)

So, I have to stay in touch with the staggering and humbling feeling that I've only scratched the surface in my understanding of the literature that I present to students. I could teach a book like Fahrenheit 451 a thousand times and still not feel like I've found everything there is to appreciate. I have to feel like I have a lot to learn, not because I'm so ignorant, but because the material is so great. And when I stop feeling that, maybe I shouldn't teach it. And maybe I should change professions, too.

But that's not the only type of awe that's vital. I also need to allow myself time and space to be awed by the children I teach. That means that after completing all of the "work" of grading and responding and entering and conducting the "business" of teaching, I have to set aside time to appreciate the beauty in the writing of my students.

This type of beauty ain't always easy to see, but in order for me to really know my students, I have to be observant and present enough to be awed by them. I have to recognize some essential good thing in their work that connects to some essential good thing in the material we're exploring in class. If I can't see a connection, I'm not the teacher to help them discern the connection themselves, and the class will be a waste of time.

But if I am able to help them connect their goodness, there are few things more powerful than a classroom glowing with the awe of true learning. Yup.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The 5 Stages of Grading

Another winter break is drawing to a close, and this is the time when I get most misty-eyed about my life as a teacher. A time for reflection on the beauty and majesty of the profession I've been called to.

It's also the time when I've got a lot of grading to do. The kids cheered when I said I wasn't going to give homework, and I felt good for them. But with the school bell echoing in my ear, and the students sprinting off towards their break, I started to enter my stages of grading.

Step 1: Denial and Isolation

Looking at your inbox stacked high with papers needing to be graded, you'll look at them, take a deep breath and mouthfart something about a teacher's work never being done. Besides, grading all of your students projects at once couldn't be that difficult. It might even be fun. You grin through your lying teeth and isolate yourself from the papers.

If you live alone, you drop them heavily in your empty house, giving added pathos to your Ikea coffee table. If you have a family, you drop them heavily on the dining room table or some other very public place. Everyone should know about all the fun you're going to have grading awesome awesome papers at home instead of relaxing.

So yeah, you're feeling a little confrontational. And that's why it's a good thing that you just want to isolate yourself. Any conversation you have with a member of your family is going to involve that cue of student essays. No one wants to be around you because you're denial is wearing off. You stink of resentment. You are starting to realize that you are going to spend hours and hours grading. The suck.


Step 2: Anger

Now you're starting to get pissed off. You sit down to see what the papers look like and you are angry. How dare you have to spend all this time reading the thoughts of these pipsqueaks, these ne'er d'wells, these cusses! What they need is for you to go Joe Clark on them! And so what, almost all of them completed it! They didn't do it good enough! And that's because they weren't paying attention in class and didn't take the learning seriously! You're so angry that it starts to feel good. 

Step 3: Bargaining



Well, perhaps things are not that bad, you think. Perhaps there's a way to keep the whole class from failing with their terrible, terrible papers. Perhaps there are a complex series of algorithms that will help drag them up from the depths to which they have fallen. You start looking at the grades and seeing what happens if you increase the value of the signed syllabus assignment to 1000 points.

But looking at your students in this way makes you feel unlike yourself.  You've become a pencil pusher. An accountant. A box checker. You're Ben Stein reading the roll. Beueller. Beueller. Beueller. You feel like a phony.

Step 4: Depression


You are a goddamn phony. This whole time, you thought you could teach, but instead you're just really good at sucking. And look what you've done. You've gone ahead and warped the minds of scores of children. You haven't been teaching them anything, and on top of that, anything they did learn, they learned it wrong. Their minds will be forever misaligned like stripped screws. Ruined by a charlatan.

This is the point where whatever coping mechanisms you've developed over your lifetime start to kick in. Whether it's your family or your religion or your cat, or even a 1/2 gallon of ice cream, you're going to need them. Teaching clarifies the soul, it doesn't tend it. Not in this context anyway. You need a way to renew yourself to be effective. And more importantly to be human. So handle that.

Step 5: Acceptance

You're buoyed by the positive lift you got from your renewal source. You pull out the papers and you take things from a different approach. Flipping through the papers, you stop seeing them as a mass of work, further documentation of your horrible teaching. Instead, you listen to the voices behind them. You read them with the ear of someone who is actually trying to hear what the author is saying, instead of just waiting for the right moment to interject a critical remark. Even in the most garbled writing, if you listen closely, you can hear the voice that wants to be heard.

Hopefully as you hear the child's voice, you don't let yourself get sucked into your comfortable role as evaluator. If you do, you'll probably go all the way back to Step 2. But if you can, just pull back for a minute and realize that the world of this child is bigger than you could ever imagine. Your class, your teaching, occupies space, but you are just one of many teachers. Your job is not to judge who they are as people, but help them be qualified to judge it for themselves. 

But, you also have to assign a grade to the daggone things. In the end, the integrity of the learning requires transparency. A kid deserves to know where they stand, no matter the education they've received. The barber should not hesitate with the mirror. So, you grade them and make as many helpful comments as you can. Re-articulate the objectives for the assignment, and just as importantly, find something in their thinking to praise. Even if it takes a while.

Finally, you will need to frame the experience for your students. After they get their papers back, they need to hear what you heard in their work and how that will affect the learning from here on out. All of this takes time.Time you don't have because you got so good at Step 5, and its resultant insight, that you thought it best to write about grading the assignment, instead of grading the actual assignment.

You might say that's a new level of Stage 1 Denial, but we all know a teacher's work is never done. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Teacher's Presence


During my first year of teaching, I studied the faces of my students for the answers to a host of questions: Do you respect me? Do you think I care about you? Do you know that I don't know what I'm doing? Do you think I am a good teacher? Do you know that I'm afraid? Do you like me? Essentially, instead of seeing my class as a room full of individuals, most days I stood up and saw row after row of fun house mirrors, reflecting my own deficiency. I looked to their faces not to find out who they were, but to find out who they thought I was. 

As a result, I suspect the person in my classroom who learned the most during that year was me. I learned a lot about what my students thought about my teaching. Some liked it, some hated it, and some tuned out. But the most depressing outcome was that instead of being about learning, my classroom continually slipped back into a referendum on how good I was at my job. We had great moments in class, and there were students who did amazing work, but it wasn't until later that I figured out that in order to teach effectively, you have to be present enough in your class in order to see the person you are teaching.

Instead of being guided by a question about external impression, the most important question a teacher confronts is Who am I? This is the true essential question for learning in my classroom and before I can get my students to grapple with it, I have to be fully engaged with it myself.

Not only do students need to see that I have considered the question, but they also have to see that I haven't stopped asking it of myself. They need to see that the point of the question is not to provide an answer that can be bubbled in on a Scantron (male, female, teacher, student, black, white, poor, rich) but instead that the process of observation and reflection required by the question is the goal.

Paradoxically, the more I'm engaged and present with the question, the more clearly I'm able to see the individual sitting in front of me. Instead of seeing only myself in my students eyes, I start to see who they are and, perhaps, who they could be. I use this knowledge to shape a classroom experience and curriculum that communicates what I've witnessed. In that way, one of the most important elements of teaching is the ability to witness. It's not coincidence that the first question a witness in court is asked is: Were you present...?

One of the reasons that teaching is such a challenge, especially early on, is that presence is not something you can just pick up when you step in the classroom. You have to manifest presence in your life overall in order for it to be effective in your class. Some days I'm good at it, some days I suck at it. My bag of tricks has expanded over the years, but when I get stuck in class and the learning is stagnant, I still confront the same old questions that I did during my first year, but now I know those questions are secondary to the true matter at hand: How present am I? How present are my students? How will the things we're learning make us more so?

Just the other day I stumbled upon Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, where he says:
Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by the these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogs, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts--meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. 
It's probably no coincidence that in a time when our technology is purposed to promote an illusion of connectedness, that teaching is under assault. Listening to the discourse around education, you would have thought that "true" education only started with "reform" or whatever buzzword being recently applied to schools. But people have been teaching for as long as there has been humans, and no matter the era, the best teachers are still those who are most connected with themselves, with their students, with their subject, with the world. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Friday, August 2, 2013

N Team Six

Misstra Knowitall received a disturbing communique from Eric Snowden, the former government contractor turned whistle blower. Snowden decided to finally release the most damning government secret the American government does not want you to know about. What secret would shake the pillars of our government to its absolute core?

The President of the United States has a highly specialized team of secret service agents whose only mission is not to protect Barack Obama from assassins, but to protect him from being called a nigger in public.They are known as N-Team Six.

You might have this thought: Nobody would call the President of the United States a nigger to his face!

Slap yourself for having the previous thought. There is always someone out there willing to call a black man a nigger, no matter what color house he currently receives mail at.  Make a note.

Secondly, remember this?


Captivating isn't it? Just imagine all the (additional) bombs we would have had to drop on Baghdad if even one of those loafers would have connected upside W's fragile bird skull. Cheney and Rumsfeld would be tripping over their scythes to connect the whole thing to Iran's nuclear program. Yellow Cake on the Isotoners. Next thing you know: WWIII


With Obama, that the threat is even more pronounced. You don't even have to throw a shoe. All you need is one shaky Youtube video with the President out at some political function, crossing paths with a redneck who wants to get famous. There's been a couple of near-misses in the past.

Joe the Plumber
This doofus asked a single question in a slightly confrontational way and overnight became a cross between Walter Conkrite and America's Next Top Model.

Janet Brewer
She scolds the President of the United States like he was a valet at Steak and Shake and gets on the New York Times Bestseller list. Meanwhile, Michelle is the angry black woman.


And then there's this guy.

During the President's state of the Union address he got up and called the leader of the free world a liar. You know as he was sitting there, palms sweating, practicing what he was going to say, it had to occur to him that he could write his name in history forever if he stapled that little six-letter word to the back of his outburst. (Relative) good sense may have prevailed, but according to the Snowden files, the scene could have ended much differently..


The President's anger is clear in the tape, but what's not clear is the purpose of his elbow shift right afterwards. According to the documents, that gesture is the secret presidential signal to the N-Team Six snipers in the top balcony. No, he didn't call me a nigger. Joe Wilson doesn't know how lucky he was that night..

Aside from disturbing the President's boiling reservoir of ancient slave anger, resulting in dead rednecks, there is a bigger concern. When you think about it, America having Black president is an absurdity. It becomes even more absurd when you realize that it's in the national security interest of this country to make sure that said President is not brought to the "nigger level". That's the same country that employs the President to maintain the "nigger level" in the first place. So, if they assassinigger the President, we could potentially see a fracture in the space-time continuum. 



But these threats to our security are not just domestic. According to Snowden, there's been quite a few times where an insult to the President almost resulted in the button being pushed.

Chinese President President Xi Jinping


German President Angela Merkel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu


Russian President Vladamir Putin 


Afghan President Hamid Karzai


So, let us not forget the unsung bravery and valor of the people who really keep this country safe: N TEAM SIX. We salute you.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Good Hands

Allstate's white audience.commercial 


Allstate's  black audience commercial.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Obama Faces the Throne


At first, Obama rushing down to see a stricken Mandela it reeks of political expedience. It's not like he's got much else going on. Stay in Washington and have to talk about secrets and firing Eric Holder? Or get out of the country and have a presidential moment with one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century? 

Seems like an easy choice, but I think we also forget that for most of his life, the US considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Billions of American dollars were made while black South Africans were murdered. And when you think about it, Robben Island is really just the precursor to Guantanamo Bay. So as great as people say Mandela is now, the American mainstream has always been a leery about the man who married Winnie and fought alongside Fidel Castro. If anything, this costs him political points. 


But I think this might be good for the President. In this country, Black people have invested our last bit of hope in this man and that makes us a little less than objective. Obama's very image has become such a cure-all for Black people in America. No matter the ailment, just rub some Obama on it. 
  • Broken leg? Splint your leg with a picture of the President shaking hands with Bo the dog. Your bones will heal themselves, overnight. 
  • Depressed because a classmate got shot? Watch the inauguration again, while rubbing your forehead with a picture of Aretha Franklin's hat. All your cloudy days will become bright. 
  • Caught in a prison industrial complex that grows and grows? Make eleven blindfold one handed free throws. Be filled with a sense of accomplishment to enjoy the rest of your days. 
But not everyone's buying that in South Africa. According to this New York Times report, there are protests planned across Soweto. He's getting an honorary degree at Johannesburg University, but some students will protest outside. Two major political groups have suggested that the President be put in chains when he arrives (oh, the irony) for “war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide”. 
“When President Obama was ushered into the world, there was a promise for change of policy, like the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and how he is going to respond to the dispute between Israel and Palestine,” Phutas Tseki, the regional chairman of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said in announcing his group’s participation in Friday’s protests. “Now he is on his second term, and he continues to be arrogant, and his policies continue to entrench American power to the whole globe without any change.
It's hard to find a lot to argue with there. I think Black people's support of Obama lets us lose sight of the greater diaspora. We have a duty to criticize this man if he's not doing right by us, all of us. If we can't do that, then maybe it would be better to have a white man be president. Maybe we could be more honest with ourselves. At least with a white man we would more clearly see that our president, despite being one of the best presidents this country ever had, is planting the Corporate American flag right in the backs of the people who lifted him high.
“There is now among the students a feeling that Obama has done nothing to the advantage of South Africa, and has only continued the American policies around the world that we thought he was going to end,” Mr. Levy said. “He is a visitor of our government, and we do not object to that, but we do object to his being honored by our university and we want to make sure he hears our calls that he follow through on the promises he made.”
I hope that whenever Mandela makes his transition, he makes it in peace and full comfort. But I also hope that our president has time to sit at this great man's throne and consider his own legacy.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Into the Darkness

There's something deeply sentimental about the world of Star Trek. It's a vision of the future that might have been prophetic if not for the exponential curve of technology. If humans weren't already changed so much by technology, we might be able to really believe that a ship as powerful as the star ship Enterprise would be commanded by a person like James T. Kirk, a cool white dude who charms the ladies, kicks butt,  and crashes the ship every movie.

But the technological advance that would make a ship like that possible would need computing power unencumbered by the judgment and sentiment of a slothful human brain. Star Trek: Into Darkness would have been real short if HAL was running the show. Opening scene: Spock is in the volcano. Closing scene: Spock dies in the volcano. The end. Kirk would be nowhere near the controls.

What's the matter, Dave? Are you burning?
We persist in creating these computer-designed worlds where we are still masters of computers, yet many of us can't live now, in 2013, without our phones.

Thought experiment: Think about how painful it was the last time you lost your phone. How traumatic was it? Not having your data backed up feels like losing a close friend. Even if you;re data is retrieved, the experience is bittersweet, clouded by the doubt that maybe there was something lost.

We've transformed so much of our lives into data that a hardware crash feels like a death. The Ponce Deleon's among us cluck their tongues and lecture about flash drives as if they carried the water of eternal life. We're still waiting for that Lazarus device that will raise us from our purgatory of stored data after bodies have gone away. We're tripping. 

We employ a four character code to gauge the intelligence of our children, our most precious source of intellect. The test doesn't test our ability to feel, to empathize, to create--all of the qualities that will ensure our survival. Tripping.


Spoiler alert: We're not going to "win" against the computers, and that might be okay. It all depends on the types of computers that we create and award intelligence. Far too many of the most powerful computers in the world are used to kill or enslave people.

But what if instead of making our computers really good at killing and controlling humans, we used them to increase our capacity for understanding among all forms of life? Not just what's out there in space, but what's in our own hearts? 

And what does that look like? I'm not sure, but I know James T. Kirk is not involved.

What is involved is experiencing more of our lives without pictures or videos or dead screens. Put it down, turn it off, put it away. Take your headphones off and talk to that person who makes you nervous. Say hi and upgrade your emotional technology. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Misstra Knowitall's Greatest Educational Hits

I've been thinking a lot about teaching lately. I'm entering the phase where I can no longer pretend that I'm not into the profession for the long haul. You can talk trash all you want, but once you renew your certification after five years, you are committed. And that's okay. I love to teach and I love to help people learn.

Anyway, here's a few oldies but goodies that represent some of my thoughts around the subject.

We Built It, Now We Live In It

2008 was my first year of high school teaching and my first year of having a Black President. Listening to my students helped me understand the significance of both. 








Beloved Community: 

This was something I wrote for an essay contest when I was at Indiana University. It was all about Dr. King's concept of "Beloved Community," which I had never heard of before. King's words were powerful and made me think about my classroom as an opportunity for Beloved Community. Anyway, I won an iPod from the contest (Yeah!), which was ironically stolen (Boo!) by a student of mine during Teach for America summer training.



Elbows: A Meditation :

The game, and its adherents, often leave marks that can't be concealed. Seeing the president get his lip busted got me thinking about how I've been marked by experiences on the basketball court and in the classroom.






Standardized Teaching: 

Can we create an educational framework that's informed by data, but not enslaved by it? Although this is a hot topic in education, the answer to this question not only will determine the fate of not only our schools, but also our species.






Teaching Writing and Blowing the Whistle: 

My PE teacher taught me the virtues and vices of "Blowing the Whitstle" in my class when it comes to writing. In a test-heavy environment, sometimes the learning that can be easily assessed is the learning that gets emphasized the most. Writing should promote deeper thinking. If it's not, it should be rethought. 








Misstra Knowitall's Philosophy of Technology Education:

We teach our kids how to use technology, but we don't talk about why or when. The pace of technology is outpacing our ability to understand how it affects us. Technology should increase our capacity to think deeper, not occupy us more deeply in the trivial. What we teach our kids about it says a lot about who we are.



Real Talk:

A student at my school is killed. I had to skim this one, but you might want to read it. Still hard to think about.









Life After Death at ACT Charter school: 

What is it like to live through the slow death of a school? Terrible. What is it like when said school is resurrected? Terribly bizarre.








Saturday, March 2, 2013

All You Hip Hoppers


The only good thing about BluBlockers was the commercial and the only good thing about the commercial was when a brother stepped to the mic and instructed the hip hop nation to get themselves a pair of BluBlockers. That was the first commercial I can remember for white people that actually featured a black man rhyming. And although Dr. Geek had on a silly a$$ sombrero, this was no MC Hammer buck dancing for popcorn chicken.

What you say, Hammer? Proper.
Dr. Geek made BluBlocker millions and all he ever got was a free pair of cheap glasses. Same old story, but Dr. Geek can rhyme. Off the head, his flow bops along, brimming with wit and good nature. If he seems professional in his approach, its because he is. At the time Dr. Geek was working Venice Beach, rapping for tourists. Imagine being a large black man trying to make a living rapping at white folks who are on vacation to get away from large black men. He had to find a way to disarm them, without resorting to shuffln. Notice how he plays it cool about the glasses at first, but then lights up when the salesman gives him the pair. Despite his happiness with the free shades, he stays professional, even reminding customers to order them at home. 

You can call his flow corny, but Dr. Geek gets much respect as the ultimate blu collar MC.