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.