Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What would Harry Potter Do?

In the opening days of school, my son encountered some trouble on the playground.  He came home visibly upset and his tales pulled at my heartstrings.  What could I do? He was struggling and I wanted to make it all better.  Naturally, marching onto the playground and wagging my finger in front of the noses of those schoolyard bullies wasn’t an option.  I felt stuck.

So I handled it the way I suspect most parents might.  I reviewed the protocol for playground problem solving: ignore it, walk away, tell a grown-up. But that didn’t placate him. That wasn’t what he needed to know.  He wanted to understand why—why do people act this way?

Hmmm.  Good question.  How does one explain what motivates ill-will and mean-spirited, hurtful human behavior?  Why DO people act this way?

As I stuttered and stumbled my way toward an explanation, my son began to mull over his own question.  He said, “You know, Adam is kind of like Voldemort because he’s the leader. He’s really mean and yet the other kids, Zach and Ian follow him and do bad stuff for him.  They’re  kind of like the Death Eaters.”

I couldn’t believe it.  In that moment, Harry Potter’s magic permeated the walls of Hogwarts and took hold in my very own kitchen in Long Island, New York. Through The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban, my son had met and come to know a motley and interesting cast of characters.  Some he admired and others he saw as downright loathsome and wicked. But either way, these people made sense to him. In Harry Potter’s world, evil and ill-will had a place.  We giggled as we imagined the Whomping Willow attacking his tormentors and we wondered what spells Harry Potter might cast to retaliate and fight this brand of school yard evil.

In his book Readicide (Amazon affiliate link), Kelly Gallagher cites Kenneth Burke who postulates that reading is important for children because “it provides them with ‘imaginative rehearsals’ for the real world.”  The world can be big and bad and ugly and good authors know that good stories weave the world’s complexities into their plots and characters. Through reading, children are exposed to many of the complicated issues that they might meet in the real world. And though they may whine and question why they have to read, I can think of no better reason than to tell them to take heed, because they can never know when they might need to know what Harry Potter would do. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Embracing Change: The Decision to Go Deskless

Embrace change.  As of late, that seems to be my message and I have been very moved by those of you who have commented on the blog and emailed me your inspiring stories.  This week, Kathy Merlino, a friend and colleague who teaches in Islip, New York, agreed to share her story of change and the experience of teaching second grade in a deskless second grade classroom.

The decision to go deskless
I had heard about the idea for years at conferences I attended.  It never attracted me.  I didn't see the point.  Then, last year, I began to entertain the thought, and I couldn't get it out of my mind: going deskless in the classroom.  What would it look like?  Where would the children sit?  Where would I teach whole class lessons? My mind began to race with ideas. What are desks for?  Why have them take up valuable space in the classroom?  Couldn't I have community pencils and supplies placed around the room instead?   A child will seldom fit the exact measurements of his desk.  Other seating arrangements could actually be better for small children.  Handwriting improves for sloppy writers when their elbows are anchored down on the floor and they are forced to use their smaller motor skills.   Besides, the atmosphere would be more comfortable--almost like at home-- and the children would be better able to learn.

I already had a couch in my room, but I didn't really have any child-sized furniture.  I went to yard sales and acquired a couple of low coffee/end tables and a magazine rack.  I bought a child's Adirondack chair and a child's rocking chair.  I got a child's park bench and a bean bag chair.  I lowered my posters and bought beautiful braided, non-allergic, non-flammable rugs.  I traded my big old teacher's desk for a smaller version that tucks away in the corner by the sink. I brought in plants from home, not just for cleaner air, but also to help relax the children. I was ready.  I was excited.  I just couldn't wait for the new school year to begin!

Organizing the space

I felt like I was setting up a home--a home for little folks who come to learn.  Many of my colleagues came by to see my room and were surprised and impressed with the new set up. They asked me questions and I showed them the "mailbox" I had set up to hold the children's math and science workbooks.  I showed them where I was going to place the children's homework on the top shelf of their cubbies.  It took a lot of thinking, but everything seemed to have a logical place to go and there were no desks to get in the way.

Living in a deskless classroom
As the weeks have gone by, I have had many visits from many more colleagues, my principal, and parents. They have observed and commented on how welcoming my classroom is.  They say it's beautiful and cozy and comfortable.  This year my students seem to be more attentive and caring.  One child even said, "I don't see anything I don't like about this room!"  It all seems to be working out very well.  Change is often difficult, but this change has been paying big dividends!

Click here to see all my pictures.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How Do YOU Peel a Banana?

September brings a lull for staff developers like myself itching to begin working in classrooms but needing to wait patiently as teachers build rapport with students and lay the groundwork for well-established routines and procedures. This holding pattern inevitably gives me time to reflect on my own practices and set goals for the work that I will accomplish during this school year. As I think about what has been and what is yet to be, I surf the web for information: articles, blogs, videos—anything that I can use as a sounding board for my thoughts and ideas. Every now and then, I find a gem. And recently, I found one that I HAVE to share with you.

This is a video about opening a banana. I know what you’re thinking. If I’m amused by a man peeling a banana, I have WAY too much time on my hands, right? Here’s my response: watch the video, then we’ll talk.

After I watched this, I couldn’t help but think that this video is the perfect metaphor for professional growth and development. Year after year after year, we do what we think is best. It works, so we don’t bother to think about how to do it better or differently. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Isn’t that the old adage?

Since watching this video, I have eaten a lot of bananas. Sometimes, I remember to pinch the bottom and peel with ease. But, sometimes, because I’m in a hurry or because I’m just not thinking a whole lot about how to peel my banana, I revert to my old ways. I chuckle and think to myself, so that’s why some teachers insist on teaching whole class novels or give seven ELA practice tests before testing day: Change is hard.

Colin Powell said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant, or the scared. It’s an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms.” When it comes to teaching, the call to action is imminent. Education is under the gun and we can no longer afford to be complacent, arrogant, or scared. The time to change is now and if we don’t start thinking about how to peel the banana differently, we may never arrive at the level of innovation our schools need to improve.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Education’s Greatest Foe: Complacency

We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present.

~Thomas Edison

In the summer of 1996 I attended Columbia University’s Teacher College weeklong writing institute. Each morning, I sat mesmerized as I listened to Kathleen Tolan and Isoke Nia share the podium and fill my vessel with information I felt I desperately needed to become a more powerful and effective teacher of writing. In the afternoon, with the gentle coaching of Sharon Hill, I immersed myself in my own writing and pushed myself to understand the writing process in a way that could only be achieved by trying the things that we ask of students. At the end of those seven days, I was invigorated and energized. I knew my learning would elevate my teaching to new levels.

I returned to my fifth grade classroom and implemented units of study and planned mini lessons with focus and poignancy. With the help of Carl Anderson who worked with me in my classroom, I tweaked and honed my conferring skills. I read Katie Wood Ray and Ralph Fletcher and I felt like there was simply not enough information available to satiate my hunger and thirst for knowledge about how to do this better.

In retrospect, there is no doubt that my professional learning curve was never greater than in my earliest years of teaching. I was uncertain and curious. I was new and I felt like I had so much to prove. I was highly motivated to work hard to be the best that I could be.

As time wore on, I achieved a level of success with my workshop that made me feel confident. Where once I sought advice from others, colleagues were now coming to me as their role model for workshop instruction. Little by little, I asked fewer questions. I read fewer books and articles. I became comfortable.

And with comfort comes complacency.

With movies like Waiting for Superman due to be released this fall and states vying for Race to the Top funding, education has moved to the public awareness hot seat. Policy makers, business people, and administrators are all weighing in on what they believe needs to happen to improve education. They promote initiatives and programs—and then wonder, why are things not getting better?

When I think about why things are not getting better, my thoughts turn immediately to complacency. Unless ALL teachers continue to push themselves, it will be as Thomas Edison stated: “We shall have no better conditions in the future.”

Education knows no greater enemy than the status quo and even good teachers no longer striving to be great are part of the problem. So the question I leave you with today is this: Have you stagnated at good? What will you do this year to outgrow your best ideas?