Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Community, Reflecting, and Teaching

     I read a question asking how I meaningfully involve the  community in the learning in my classroom. It made me pause. Think. Reflect. Wonder. Imagine. Answer. I have involved the community in learning that takes place in my classroom but in a limited way.
     A few years back I incorporated into my Sr. Comp class a section on career exploration. In this section, students would get paired with community members who worked in the job market the student was interested in exploring. Thankfully we have a university in our city which makes finding people a bit easier. Although now a stand alone program no longer run through my class, it had its beginnings there.
     This year we did projects which involved surveying the community and finding their thoughts on our school and the public library. In one case we presented to service organizations, trying to communicate the truth about their school. This was a successful project that the students bought into.
     Next year our school is going to try something different with our service outreach days called We Are Community Days. We looked at current practices, got input from the students and reflected on  what would make these days a better experience for all involved. I'm looking forward to seeing how this will improve those opportunities.
    Reflection is paramount in being a teacher. Unless I reflect on what I'm doing and question how I can improve, I stagnate. Stagnation usually leads to smells. Bad smells. I don't need that in my life.
    So look at your life as a teacher. Where are and where do you want to go? Do you involve the community? The students? How can we become more engaging as teachers?
     These are just  a few of the questions I ask myself regularly. Asking questions like these changes lives. And that can make all the difference. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dare to Care

     We have a pandemic in our area. A crisis so large and looming that my heart hurts. No, it's not the Zika virus. It's something worse. Incredibly worse. It's suicide and it's infecting our teens.
     In the last two weeks, four kids in our region have decided life was too hard, too cold, too uncaring, too complicated, too much--and they opted out. I didn't know a single one of these kids but my gut grieves them. What moves a young person to give up?
     Survivors are left with a myriad of emotions: guilt, confusion, guilt, loss, guilt, sorrow, and more guilt. Did I mention guilt? Guilt riddles the world of those left behind, with the question "Why?" hovering, ever-present in the minds of those who live.
     Suicide swirls in the minds of teens, tempting them with an "easy" solution, that is infinitely hard on loved ones. It's a solution that leaves those behind with no solution at all. No answers. No understanding. Instead they slog through a slough of emotions, trying not to be angry at the person who took his/her own life. But it's hard not to resent that person. Why did you do it, we want to ask. But there's no one left to ask. So we're left with questions and guilt and remorse for not having cared more for the person.
     Why am I taking space to write about teen suicide? Because I NEED to. As a teacher, I've seen far too many kids, some of them MY kids, decide to take an exit slip from life. I've had to look into the pain-filled eyes of parents where I've jumbled weightless words that I'm sure offered no comfort at all. I've sat with wounded students who are just as confused as I, tears trailing our faces as we talked about the missing link to our lives.
     Yet in the midst of this negative situation, I see a ray of hope. A little life saver that may help to stem these desperate measures.  It's called relationships. As a teacher, building relationships with my kids is priority one in my classroom. I want them to know I care, I'm there, and I dare to help them. That they matter to someone in this life. That their existence has meaning.
     As difficult as it sometimes is to reach these desperate souls, it's a starting point. If I'm consistent and equitable in my treatment of students, a tenuous relationship begins to build. Slowly, determinedly, hopefully these young people will see that someone cares about them. Slowly, determinedly, and hopefully these young people will break out of the muck of  inferiority and helplessness and despondency they are mired in and realize these emotions are only temporary. Life can get better. It WILL get better. They just need to hang on to someone who cares--like a teacher.
     Show you care and be intentional in building relationships with your students--even the ones you don't gravitate to. Let that tenuous relationship grow. We can curtail the pandemic in our land by reaching out and caring. Really caring. Make an effort to show that care today.
It can make all the difference.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hobbies in the Classroom

     Today's reflective question deals with any hobbies or interests I have that I bring into the classroom. Well, the hobbies I love most, reading and writing, are already a part of the classroom so I have to dig a bit deeper. That being said, I do bring my love for reading into the classroom by sharing what I'm currently reading with my students and giving a running analysis of the book. The more I talk, the less they talk, so I try to limit what I say and use cliffhangers when appropriate. I've had more than one student read a book to find out what happened.
     As for any other kind of hobbies, I'm not what you would call a"crafty" person. I never knew what a glue gun was until a few years ago. I'm more of an outdoorsy person. Hiking, biking, reading on the patio--well, you get the idea.For the past few summers I've gone with a group of friends on a multi-day bike trip. We go easy, about 40-60 miles a day, enjoying the weather, the scenery and the friendships. We pedal through national forests, state parks, scenic byways and urban centers all in the name of fun. I do bring this activity into the classroom. I reference one of my favorite movies, Breaking Away, often in class. This movie, albeit dated, has great life lessons for kids to write about.
       I try to reference it whenever I can, just because I love biking. By the end of the block, students know one thing about me for sure: my bike is my bud.
      Bringing hobbies into the classroom humanizes us as teachers.When I reveal personal details about me,  I'm showing I trust them. Eventually, that trust is reciprocated. Teaching is more than a book and paper or being glib or adept at using a Smartboard. It's about relationships. The more I know about my kids, the more I'll care about them. And the more they know about me and the more real I make myself, the more they'll connect with me.
     Over the years I've come to realize you can never care too much. I've learned it can make all the difference.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Helping Students Help Themselves

     In my infancy days as a teacher, I taught in a multi-grade classroom, similar, I guess, to my arrangement now. As I said, I'm referencing my early years as a teacher, when I wasn't as seasoned, some may call it more "raw," I didn't have the patience I've acquired since then. The result? I'd often get miffed by students who clung to me for every direction. Being a more independent, self-starter personally, I was stymied by kids who clutched a teacher for fear of a misstep. I knew I needed to make them more self-reliant, but how? That is the topic of today's reflective teacher topic. The one I was supposed to complete in 30 days? Yeah, that's it. How do we as teachers get students to work on their own?
   I'm a huge proponent of the 4Cs philosophy, with one of them being collaboration. I think by not offering students opportunities to work, and problem solve, together, we are robbing them of vital real-life experience they will need in their futures. But, I also see value in learning to work, and think, on your own. If a student can't think independently, he/she will have problems bringing anything to group work. Instead of being a contributor, they will become a drain on the rest of the group, slurping up the collaborative juices just as they begin to flow. I've seen it happen time and again. To be a good groupie, students need to be able to think and reason on their own.
     In steps the teaching involved in learning that discipline. For the most part, that's all my students know. They work independently, asking for help when needed. That's the theory of how my school works. The reality is I have kids each block who have invested in cling wrap. They want to affix themselves to me in hopes they never make a mistake or misunderstand something. For every assignment, the have multiple questions.
      What does this show me? It reveals just how insecure the learner is. It peels back the layers of self-doubt to reveal a student who may have received negative reinforcement from teachers in the past. It gives me a glimmer of a student swimming in a lack of confidence.
     So how do you handle these types of students? I believe they need to feel a sense of achievement. Some success to build their confidence. Some reassurance they are able to accomplish the task at hand with minimal input from me. I start out with small things and build from there. Is writing the problem? No topic sentences in their paragraphs? Too many ideas? I'll break it down to work on having them identify topic sentences in paragraphs and telling me WHY it's a topic sentence. Once their confidence is up a bit, we move no to writing our own topic sentences--together. Eventually, the student will write a topic sentence on his/her own until finally we work towards writing a cohesive, unified paragraph.
     This definitely takes time, but the payoff can be great. You will end up with a student who not only can identify the topic sentence, but who can also formulate the rest of the sentences so that they support the topic sentence. It sounds easy. It's not.
    Not only are we to teach, we are to empower our students with the ability to help themselves. When we can instruct them in the art of becoming independent learners, we can lead them to be better collaborators. And that can make all the difference in their lives.