Forward to Finals

Just two weeks ago we were in the throes of final exams, stressed about whether we’d get all that grading done before dismissal for Winter Break, whether PowerSchool would be operating and we could get our grades in on time, whether the stress that got to our students would abate or build as they waited for the verdict on each of their classes. So I hate to bring that all back.

Nevertheless, I can’t write this post without summoning the Ghost of pre-Christmas Past. During finals week, I talked to many teachers in my building about their final exams. How they planned them, what accommodations and adjustments they made, and the creative ways they devised to assess their students’ knowledge.

In the Media Center, where my office is located, students were making round table presentations about their research into a dietary staple or a food of economic importance in a selected third-world country. “The Hunger Project” in this AP Biology class caught my attention because each student had created an Infographic to capture the essence of their investigation. Google provides templates for infographics; the students supplied the creativity.

It made me wonder what other creative delivery methods teachers were utilizing to assess their students’ learning. It didn’t take long to hear about other alternatives to standard essays, multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions. An AP History teacher uses podcasting as a tool. Instead of a traditional research paper, students create entertaining scripts in which they investigate the truth–or the fiction–behind popular historical topics. Who knew that Napoleon changed his wife’s name to a moniker he preferred? Josephine Bonaparte’s real name was Rose. But wait! There’s more! Listen to this Podcast.  And this one.

A culinary arts teacher could have elicited pretty boring paragraph answers to questions about safety and sanitation. Instead, the students put their creative minds and a sense of humor to work creating Tik Tok videos. Fun to make, fun to watch!

Dual credit speech students delivered Commencement Speeches in the auditorium; students in other speech classes made award presentations and delivered acceptance speeches. Theater Arts students wrote and performed original scripts. In a Special Education speech class, students drew topics from a hat and delivered impromptu speeches. Although I didn’t see any this semester, in other years, I’ve watched as students delivered their knowledge in the form of TEDx talks. Of course, performance is a natural when the subject is oral communication–or art or music or PE–but there are others: a portfolio of creative writing, a photography exhibit, a display of ceramic or wood art objects, or a musical rendition.

This is not to say that essays, multiple choice, and matching aren’t important or don’t have their place. Many of the teachers who devised the alternate forms of assessment I’ve just described also had written tests. But the range of formats throughout the building gave students a break from the tedium of pencil and paper and the opportunity to creatively demonstrate what they’ve learned, to work together, to learn new skills (e.g., infographics and podcasting), to show their humor and to laugh a lot (the Tik Tok videos). Refreshing.

And so was the PE exam I was invited to watch unfold. The class was Weights. When I showed up at the beginning of the exam period, I went to the wrong room. Wouldn’t you, too, think showing up to the weights room would be logical? But no. The kids were all in the gym itself–and dressed for gym class. I was puzzled, decided it must be a performance exam–but why not in the weights room? Turns out, the performance part of their exam is incorporated into the two 9 weeks grades. The students were in the gym for an old-fashioned paper and pencil test.

Unlike the 9th grade biology teacher, whose students sit cheek by jowl in an overcrowded classroom, who creates multiple versions of her exams so that no two students have all the same questions, the Weights teacher has the luxury of space. Spread out on the gym floor, armed only with a pencil–no sleeves to tuck a crib sheet in, no phones to sneak a peek at–these students, clad in their gym uniforms, sprawled on the floor and watched a video the teacher had made of former students executing the 26 lifts they had learned over the course of the semester. The present students filled in the blanks with the names of the lifts and completed a vocabulary test as well. And then what?

Something wonderful: They got to play dodge ball. They loved it! And they needed it. After a week of tests, whether paper and pencil, electronic or even performance: release!

Which is what we all felt, too, when the final bell rang.

So why am I posting this now? Why not just before that final bell? To be honest, no one would have had the time to read it before the bell rang–or the inclination to do so afterward, during Winter Break. But now that we are back in school and beginning a new semester, it’s a good time to take a look ahead to possibilities for May. Maybe this post will spark an idea that will change it up for you and your students. Even if it doesn’t, welcome to second semester!

 

 

 

Museum of Civilization

It’s nearing the end of the semester. Teachers are writing final exams; students are presenting culminating projects. I’m visiting classrooms to see some of the exemplary work my colleagues and their students have been doing.

Earlier this week, my colleague Sarah Gessel and her students mounted an exhibition in the Media Center called the “Museum of Civilization.” It was a curation assignment, inspired by Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that has become a staple of the English curriculum following an all-community read that our English teachers had a hand in designing.

A character in that novel establishes a “museum of civilization,” an exhibit at the deserted airport, of the world as it used to be. Mrs. Gessel wanted her students to understand how objects become symbols of individuals as well as of the collective. She wanted her students to understand that their individual dreams and ambitions, their likes and loves, their pastimes and pleasures, their actions and accomplishments encapsulate them as individuals and, collectively, characterize their generation. She wanted them to think critically about the objects in their lives that capture the essence of each of them. Here was Mrs. Gessel’s assignment:

Background: In Station Eleven, we learn that Clark is the keeper of the Museum of Civilization at the airport. There, he preserves items of the past that represent mankind before the flu. 

Question: What three things would you personally put in a Museum of Civilization a hundred years from now that would represent you as a whole? You may not use a phone.

Assignment:

  1. Choose three items that represent you as a person.
  2. Create a display “From the collection of ___________ (you)”. Your collection should contain a brief description of who you are (written in 3rd person!), including birth year.
  3. For your display, you must have the actual item.  If that is not possible, a picture will have to do.
  4. For each item, you will create an informational label (like you see in a museum under an artifact). It should contain:
    1. The time period it is from
    2. Its use or symbolism
    3. Why the object was important to him or her
    4. What it tells the future about the person  
  5. Here is a very basic, rough idea of what I am looking for…except yours should be real…not on a document.

Here are some of the items students brought to school:

Some of their artifacts were poignant–a necklace made with a dear friend, now deceased; a stack of recipes from a grandmother; an old movie camera that launched what might well become a career:

Yes, there were earbuds and screens, but not many. In fact, what I noticed in addition to the wide variety of artifacts was the overwhelming lack of electronics. Admittedly, Ms. Gessel forbade phones, but earbuds and other electronic paraphernalia did not dominate the displays. Instead, there were the indicators of family, friendship and faith. Of interest in the arts, organized sports, and individual artistic pursuits. In children, in 4-H, in books, in cooking. Ms. Gessel’s students, like most teenagers if critics would just look beneath the surface, are not the zombie-like, plugged-in and tuned-out youth so often caricatured. These are kids I want to know better, unique and interesting individuals who are going to be in charge of a world I want to live in.

And here’s what happened afterward, after the spectators left, after the voting by gallery-goers was over, after the grades were assigned: The students looked at each other’s displays and something spontaneous occurred. Here’s what Ms. Gessel wrote to me:

My heart is full as I am sitting here thinking of the time we just spent last hour enjoying each other’s company as a class. All of their “stuff” is great, but what made so many of those items in there come to life were the kids. Watching them ask each other to play their instrument or sing or dance or compliment each other’s artwork or just comment on how nice it was just to chill with each other and listen…WOW. No museum can hold that amount of wonder or life. This is why I teach and am still teaching!

If you would like to know more about curation as an instructional tool, click here to read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy.

A Christmas Memory

An exquisite teaching moment, one that still takes my breath away. Take the time this month to explore holiday classics and recall your own memorable classroom moments. Sweet, sweet gifts that last longer than the moment.

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird were one and the same person.

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud.  Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”  It was worse than that, actually.  I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

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Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition for me.  The holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world. Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

I am still at it, still an educator.  As an instructional coach now, one of the ways I support my colleagues is through occasional co-teaching. Yesterday, I learned that even in this supportive role, students think of me as one of their teachers. To my surprise, in my mailbox was a sweet and oh-so-affirming note from a sophomore girl, thanking me for teaching MLA to her and her classmates way last year. Her note means the world to me, and I want her to know that I am grateful I can count her and her peers as my “former students,” too. 

So here’s the annual Thanksgiving post–with a few new additions as I have heard from more of you this past year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies–and just last week with more of you at the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis. I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office and again this year at school, so you could give me a flu shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town.

One of you approached me years ago at the Indy airport and described your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours. I’ve met two of you just this year in the same airport–students from my early years in TSC. One of you owns a grocery store that is helping to revive a part of our community; another of you is the piano man who has entertained the whole community for years.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other trouble spots around the globe. A few years ago, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization. Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter. Some of you have read the book I wrote this year and have written to tell me you liked it. Some of you look at my nature photographs and tell me they bring you peace.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors, one is soon to be a physician’s assistant.. At least one of you sells real estate, three at least are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you writers, restaurant owners, veterinarians, and musicians.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. The CEO of a community foundation. A journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers. Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and veterinary assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you have had different struggles–you’ve faced challenges no one should have to. But you had determination and the will to succeed.

You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

#RedforEd: Signs of the Time

From inside our car on the way to the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis yesterday, to the gathering on the Statehouse lawn, to the hallways of the capitol building itself, the signs told our story–more eloquently, more imaginatively, more impactfully than anything except maybe the aerial shot of the sea of teachers dressed in red.

Image may contain: crowd, tree, sky and outdoor

Students, students! What do you see? I see my teachers, fighting for me!

It was cold in the morning, but the predicted rain held off until noon, and even then, the sprinkles didn’t dampen the fervor of the teachers and their supporters nor deter the steady stream of arrivals. As one sign said:

When this many teachers show up, you know you have homework!

  • We are here because we love your kids!
  • Time to use my teacher voice!
  • Don’t stand by! Stand up! Stand strong” Stand together! #RedforEd!

The signs clarified the issues:

  • Teach more, test less.
  • It’s not a shortage, its a crisis!
  • Teachers just wanna have funds!
  • Who can justify #100 million every year for standardized testing?
  • I’m certified in economics. Do you need my help?
  • You wouldn’t be a legislator without educators!
  • My students are more than a test score!
  • Teach more, test less!

And finally, this one carried by a boy about 9 or 10:

Too many of me, not enough of them!

#Red for Ed! Indianapolis, November 19, 2019 #RedforEd

Some of the teachers from McCutcheon High School

Why We Teach, 2019

Only a few years ago, the “office humor” that circulated among educators on the Internet went something like this: “You know you’re a teacher if…” 

The ensuing list of indicators would have made anyone outside the profession wonder why on earth a person would become a teacher in the first place, never mind staying on year after year. The list highlighted job features like these:

  • no social life from August to June
  • high susceptibility to chicken pox, colds, sore throats, and flu 
  • a compulsion to put grades on grocery lists, telephone messages, and junk mail

But office humor these days is dark. It’s more than simple comic relief. Teacher salaries are lower than ever and the workload itself is greater: more students, more classes, more documentation, more standardized tests. Snowplow parents, the glare of the media, and public shaming on Facebook. Fewer substitutes, less funding for programs, and even less money for teachers. All of it is true. All of it is anguishing.

So why in the world would anyone become a teacher? Why would they stay on?

Because there’s another story.

  • It’s the young woman whose resume landed her a full-time job–the resume you gave up your lunch period to help her compose.
  • It’s the math students you’ve driven to Saturday competitions and the art students you’ve entered in contests so they can test their strengths and hone their skills.
  • It’s the “struggler” who didn’t like to read, the one you worried about and stayed after school to help, who finally confessed when he finished a novel you suggested, “This is the first book I’ve ever read cover to cover.  I really liked it, too.”
  • It’s the girl who said, “I didn’t have any friends until I joined your club!
  • It’s the student whose lines you listened to over and over and over again until you could recite them yourself–but the play was a success and the student was a star.
  • It’s the ones you’ve stayed up all night for at the after-prom and the lock-in. 
  • It’s the ones you’ve monitored early in the morning on “study table”–it kept them eligible for sports and it kept them in school.
  • It’s the ones you’ve written college recommendations for and hugged  when they told you the good news: “I’ve been accepted!”
  • It’s the ones you’ve helped in the library when they “couldn’t find anything.”
  • It’s the boy who said, “You made me work.  You taught me how to study–and now I’m going to college!”  This is the boy you agonized about on the weekends and lost sleep over at night because no one at home seemed to be helping.
  • It’s the ones who’ve come back from Middle School to say, “You really did know what skills I’d need in sixth grade!”
  • It’s the children for whom you’ve been a stand-in parent on Family Nights.
  • It’s the ones you’ve taught how to run computer programs–students who weren’t even in your classes.
  • It’s the ones for whom you’ve paid the field trip charge.
  • It’s the ones to whom you’ve given lunch money.
  • It’s the ones you’ve bought winter coats.
  • It’s the children upon whose doorsteps you’ve left holiday gifts–and then driven quickly away.
  • And it’s the light in their eyes and the lift in their voices when they learn how to read, or convert fractions, or understand covalence, or give a speech, or shoot a basket, or play the clarinet, or fix a car’s transmission…  

 Ask any educator: stories like these are the sustaining force in our professional lives, the compensation for those skipped lunches, sleepless nights, constant criticism, and endless piles of paperwork that consume the evenings and weekends. 

It’s the kids.  They’re the reason why we teach and the reason why we stay.

A Harvest of Lessons

It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.

I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.

But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.

I learned some important lessons early on.

That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.

A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”

In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.

Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.

In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.

In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.

It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.

All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.