Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Classroom and the Compass

Geomagnetic Reversal: A planet-wide event postulated by geologists to explain magnetic aberrations in the Earth’s crust; the sudden and cataclysmic realignment of the planet’s magnetic field.

Geomagnetic reversals are one of the great mysteries of geology. Using a century’s worth of seismic data, geologists have inferred the presence of a giant metallic core at the very center of Earth, where many of the heaviest elements settled during the initial formation of our planet. The atoms of this core form a powerful magnetic field which subtly impacts everything on our planet: aligning the cooling molecules of volcanic lava, guiding sea turtles and other migratory animals, and diverting dangerous bursts of solar radiation into the beautiful and harmless displays of the northern and southern auroras. For countless centuries, this magnetic field has also guided humans in their explorations across the world, faithfully directing the needles of every compass on Earth.

Yet once in a great while – every hundred thousand years or so – something happens to this magnetic field. Through processes not yet understood, a cataclysmic event causes the entire core to change its polarity; magnetic north and south literally switch places, and a new north and south spring into being. The records of dozens of past reversals are etched in the rock of the Atlantic seabed, where their discovery in the 1960’s helped usher in a new era in geophysics. Their cause remains a mystery, and the date and time of the next reversal – not to mention its consequences for our modern electromagnetically-driven civilization – remain unknown.

My experience in the Mississippi Teacher Corps has been like a series of geomagnetic reversals. I was brought to MTC by a single guiding thought: I wanted to teach, and teach well. I had served as a volunteer teacher before, and knew I enjoyed it. I also knew that I was woefully inadequate, and needed training to improve. I came to Mississippi expecting to get steadily better in pursuit of that goal. I expected my time in MTC to be the most challenging experience of my life…My expectations were far too optimistic.

Summer School was challenging, yes, but challenging on a manageable level. I worked hard, under the tutelage of fantastic teachers (thank you, Dr. Monroe!) and mentors (thank you, Hunter Taylor!) and with great examples set by my infinitely more talented peers (Carmelle! Bill! Annah! Conor!). Although my resolve was sometimes shaken – just as powerful solar storms can temporarily disrupt our planet’s magnetic field – my internal compass steered me safely through those (seemingly) tumultuous weeks. I weathered the storms, and even showed some small modicum of improvement. I finished the summer term with feelings of excitement and nervousness. I thought the worst was over…I had no foreboding of the cataclysm that lay ahead.

The first days of school that August sent my internal compass spinning uncontrollably. Summer School had a steep learning curve, but the learning curve in my sixth-grade classroom could only be described as precipitous. My instruction was poor. My management was worse. My mental state varied between distress (on good days) and despondency (on bad ones). Chaos reigned in every sphere of life, and I felt like every day posed a different and increasingly insurmountable challenge. I would never have survived the year without the help of some truly extraordinary friends (thank you Michael, Maya, Elijah, Andrea, and Hanna!).

By the time the dust settled and a new equilibrium set in, I dreaded the dawn of each new day. I wanted nothing more than to depart after the ring of the 3 PM bell each afternoon. I had begun to seriously question my suitability for the teaching profession. I remember one lengthy phone conversation with my parents – one of many, actually – which ended with the resolution that they would drive to Mississippi and help me move out on the very day I received my M.A. degree. I continued to strive for success, and many aspects of my teaching improved over the course of the year, but I always felt like my life was moving steadily in the wrong direction. I had almost entirely lost sight of my desire to teach; only my sense of responsibility to my students and their families kept me going. Had I not already enjoyed one year as a volunteer teacher, I would undoubtedly have left Mississippi at the end of that year.

Yet my second summer in MTC brought about another, almost equally dramatic reversal. I left my old district behind and began searching for a new position, hoping that a return to working with high schoolers might help me rediscover the joy I’d once felt as a volunteer teacher. I spent a few hectic weeks juggling my job hunt with my summer teaching duties, reaching one dead end after another and confronting a looming sense of self-doubt. Could I survive another year of teaching? Did I even want to? Fortunately, a fresh start in a new classroom and a return to the structure and discipline of MTC Summer School gave me the confidence to persevere. I cast off the frustration and despondency I’d felt throughout the previous year, attempting to consciously reset my internal compass; I was determined to give my second year a shot…

…and by turning, turning, I came ‘round right, landing a high school science position in Quitman County. As I settled in for a new school year, I knew I had reached a turning point, and I knew I had no time to waste. I worked actively to cultivate anew my desire to teach. I brought a relentless, determined optimism to my new job. I set myself a mountain of nonfiction books to read, rediscovering old passions for physics, chemistry, and mathematics. I searched for a great house and great roommates (Dan and Scott!), knowing that life outside school would make just as great a difference as life inside it. All the while, a combination of factors – older and more mature students, different subject matter, supportive friends, and the best administrators and colleagues I have ever known – conspired to help reorient me toward my old ideal...

…and it worked! I found myself suddenly, impossibly, loving my job. I found myself wanting to go to work in the morning, wanting to stay late at night, wanting each day to be perfect because perfection suddenly seemed possible. And when I looked back, it was only to see my first year “as in a mirror, darkly”; to marvel that I had ever turned north into south, that I had ever allowed my mind and my priorities to grow so completely and diametrically opposed to where they belong.

I love teaching in Quitman County, and I’m already planning summer office hours to help rising seniors with their college applications. I also plan to build on one of my biggest successes – an educational tour to Costa Rica with five extraordinary students – by planning more trips, both foreign and domestic, for the year ahead. Next August will begin another great year at Madison S. Palmer High School – where, I am now determined, each day will be better than the day before. My geomagnetic reversal analogy, while apt to describe the past two years, has one major flaw: this new mindset is here to stay.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Favorite Students...And Why I Don't Have Any

I fundamentally disagree with the prompt for this blog – namely, to write about a “favorite” student. I do not believe in having favorites – it is my responsibility as a teacher to teach and treat every child to the best of my ability, and I think that is incompatible with any form of favoritism. It is only one small step from thinking of someone as a “favorite” to thinking of someone else as a “least favorite,” and that is plain and simply antithetical to my role and responsibility as a teacher. It is only natural for a person to appreciate some personalities more than others – which is why we should guard against that tendency all the more. I remember a teacher in high school for whom I was a definite “favorite,” and while special treatment from that teachers was an ego boost at the time, it also brought about an unhealthy degree of ego inflation. The authority figures for whom I have always had the greatest respect are those who treated me well and kindly – and evenhandedly.

I will consent to write about some favorite former students – those whom I remember particularly well, who stood out from among their peers in terms of talent, maturity, or sheer force of personality. I once had a child whom I’ll call Fiction (his other teachers will know of whom I speak) who stepped straight out of a Marx brothers film and into my classroom. He had a habit of falling down frequently – tripping over things, toppling out of his chair at random moments, injuring himself in various ways – and I couldn’t help but turn to face the board and silently choke back tears of laughter each time it happened. He was also highly observant – observant, in particular, of the bemused expression that frequently passed across my face when students would do particularly absurd things. Fiction would just burst out laughing, disrupting a class full of silent, working children, to remark, “how do you expect us to keep quiet when you keep makin’ them faces, Mr. Sedlacek?” Fiction was also the child whose incessant questioning prompted me to teach operations on fractions at least five separate ways – so I was immensely gratified when he grew to proficient on his state mathematics test.

Then there were the three J’s – cousins, exceptionally well-behaved and immensely gifted. They were all in the same class – one always the first to finish everything, the next always the first to ask the tough, insightful questions, the third always the last one to leave class after staying behind to ask about the details of all the most difficult questions. There were days – there were many days, back in my first year of teaching – when I woke up dreading work, but forced myself to go because I knew those three would be waiting for after-school tutoring. That’s what I missed when I finished my first year of teaching – the feeling that I was doing something that really mattered, that someone else was counting on me to show up for work each day. It’s what led me to join MTC and reenter the classroom, and I have those three kids (and, of course, their 107 amazing classmates) to thank for it…and they’ll never, ever know. I can only hope that I’ve had as positive an influence, on ANY of my students, as they have had on me.

Why Do I Teach?

The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion, so I do.
The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion, so I do.
The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion, but I don’t.

The same tale, every morn
Repeated over and over
Shave, coffee, tie, keys
Enter softly, pull the blinds
Bid them enter
Compose myself
Now the minutes blur
Ever together and
Ever again.
Clock rings.
Bid them enter
Faster now
The same story
Replayed again

The clock rings.
A diff’rent story
Now begins
Formulas, equations
In my element
Over and over
Day in, day out

Now the first
Back again
Same story
Diff’rent faces
Played out again
Growing on me
Having fun now just
When it’s time to

Work ends
Out the doors
Another world
Another life
The one I had

Now again
Time to sleep
Why do I
Do it
And again
And again?

Because it is
The best thing there
Another world, another
Life where I can
Be the person I
Could never
Be outside.

The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion, so I do.
The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion, so I do.
The clock rings. I want
Nothing more than to return
To oblivion…but I don’t.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

What a difference a year makes! A new school, a fresh start…older, more mature students…a year of experience under my belt…it’s like I’m teaching on a different planet.

During the lead-up to the beginning of the year, I was surprised by how little anxiety I felt. I was concerned by this; as I joked to some MTC friends, I wasn’t sure if my peace of mind was a product of confidence or apathy! On the first day of school, though, the answer became clear.

As the first group of students strode into my classroom after the start-of-term assembly, they began to chatter. “Nope,” I said calmly; “you don’t come in here with that noise. Step back outside and try it again, silently.” Despite their surprised and disgruntled looks, those first few students obliged, and a few minutes later my class had entered the room and begun the bell ringer. Each class followed suit for the rest of the day.

The students put my rules to the test, and those first few days saw a whirlwind of consequences – mostly warnings, half a dozen writing assignments daily, a few after-school phone calls to parents, and one referral per day for the first four days. “It’s like a prison in here,” one student complained on the day before she transferred out of my class. “Sorry,” I told her; “these are the rules, and they aren’t going to change.” I spent nearly a week on rules and procedures, trying every possible activity – cartoon illustrations, write-your-own-rules activities, old-fashioned quizzes, story writing, group reading…And in the eight days since I started teaching actual content, it’s all been quiet on the western wing of my school. Once my students saw I was ready to follow through with both my consequences and my rewards, they settled into my classroom and went straight to work…and they are AWESOME.

Some elements of my teacher persona have carried over from last year – my favorite and, I hope, my best attributes. As the students enter at the beginning of class, I greet them cheerfully while rapidly bleating out the bell ringer instructions over and over again. If someone starts to talk, they receive a consequence – but virtually no one does, because each child is subject to constant (if cordial) haranguing the moment they pass beneath my door. “Paper out! Pencil out! For your bell ringer today, I need you to [insert long-winded instructions here]. Make sure you punctuate! Write your name at the top of your paper! Raise your hand and wait for permission to speak if you have a question!” I suspect that every child up and down the length of the hallway knows the instructions to my bell ringer, along with half my rules and procedures, by the time I close my classroom door…

Once inside, the students know they can and will be called upon at any moment. I make the rounds of the room, showering children with raffle tickets and peppering them with questions. My goal is to call on every child at least 3 times – that means at least one every forty seconds or so. If students look sleepy early in the morning (or after lunch), I have them stand up and stretch. I try to avail myself of any opportunity to get kids moving silently around the room – “Ms. E, can you pass these out for me? Thanks! Mr. D, please collect the bell ringers and leave them in the box on my desk. Ms. S, go write your answer to #5 on the board, please. Fantastic!”

Notes are short, simple, and direct – without a projector in my classroom this year, I’ve gone back to butcher paper and realized how versatile it is. I stay one step ahead of students, answering the more trivial questions before they’re asked – “write this in the upper-right corner of your paper. Draw that graph directly underneath. If you run out of room, yes, you may draw your graph on the back of your paper. You have forty-five seconds to finish!”

I finally understand what it means to have high expectations for my kids. As I began grading their first set of “science journal” entries, I started to give full credit on the first journal I read. I paused for a moment, however, and thought to myself: you know, this child’s spelling and grammar really are dreadful. Last year I would’ve said “well, he/she is doing his/her best” and let it go. This year, though, I realized that such an attitude means I am not doing my best. I went through every journal, gave high-but-not-perfect scores, marked every single spelling or grammar mistake I could find, and spent ten minutes the following day introducing a new procedure: the “grammar gripe.” Each week, I pick one common grammatical mistake and institute a zero-tolerance grading policy for that mistake. This week it was punctuation; for the past five days, if a sentence hasn’t ended in an obvious punctuation mark, it’s received a grade of zero. “Did you used to be an English teacher?” one child asked in a slightly whiny voice. “Nope,” I responded, “I just want your college and job applications to look good.” Consistent use of punctuation went from about 30% to about 85%. And yes, I’m just guessing those numbers – but it’s an educated guess, because –

-I’m grading papers every single day. It’s quick, it’s easy, and I’ve come up with a couple of tricks to make it even quicker and easier. On the second day, a student asked “is this for a grade?” regarding the bell ringer. I haven’t heard that question repeated a single time since. Everybody does the work I ask them to do, no exceptions. On the first day, I told them to use only pencils. I gave zeroes to students who wrote in pen on the first day. I haven’t had trouble since. If students forget supplies, they know that I have bright yellow paper and a wide variety of Crayola colored pencils for them to borrow…and, unsurprisingly, only one kid has needed to borrow supplies since day two.

Nothing is ever perfect. My lessons, while delivered with enthusiasm, are often still boring beyond belief, and my consistency is not quite perfect – but I know that anything less than perfection is unacceptable, so I work to make each day an improvement upon the last. And what happens as a result?


…Also, did I mention that I have two and a half planning periods?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Taxonomy of Trouble

Greetings and felicitations! It’s going to be a great summer, and I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with all of you. I know you’re being inundated with instructions and advice, so I’ll try not to foist too much more of either upon you.

In looking back on my first year, I’ve begun to see a couple of recurring behavior patterns among my students. I suspect many classrooms are pretty similar in this regard, so I’ve tried to come up with a list of these personality types and suggestions for how best to help them in the classroom. This is very much a work in progress, so I’d welcome any feedback you have, especially after meeting and working with your students this summer…also, please feel free to disagree with me completely! Here goes…

The Attention-Seeker: Is self-explanatory. This child will do anything in his or her power to obtain attention – yours or, preferably, the entire class’s. Tends to do provocative things – throws tests or classwork on the floor, makes repetitive noises while watching you and waiting for a reaction, breaks the rules and complains loudly after receiving consequences, etc. Enforce consequences while minimizing confrontation, as it will merely encourage the Attention-Seeker; seating him or her in the back of the room can help remove the temptation to “put on a show,” especially during tests. Positive reinforcement, when used properly and in conjunction with strict rule enforcement, can sometimes make the attention-seeker the single most enthusiastic (and, in fact, successful) member of your classroom.

The Born Leader: Will push boundaries, and will be watched closely by the other children. Respond consistently and try to develop a positive rapport, as many other students will follow her or his lead. If used correctly, the one-on-one “you’re such a leader, your friends really need your help and your good example in order to pass this class” talk can be extremely effective late in the term.

The Clown: Will do what all clowns do – make you laugh. Younger clowns will often go for physical comedy – the banana peel, the gastrointestinal reflux, etc. – while others will simply ask you loud, embarrassing personal questions. If the clown were only trying to disrupt the class, it would be easier to deal with him or her; the challenge lies in the clown who really is “just trying to be funny,” and fails to appreciate or care that class is disrupted in the process. Suggested response: have a sense of humor, but be consistent in the enforcement of consequences. You are the only person in the room capable of getting the class back on track, so do not mess it up and encourage the clown by laughing in front of everyone. …Laugh later, after you’ve made sure that the clown is living up to his or her academic potential.

The Earnest: Everybody wishes he or she had more earnest kids in the classroom. You remember the type – you may even have been an “earnest” when you were in grammar school. They work hard to understand you and follow your rules – which is why you will inevitably feel guilty when they don’t understand, and will feel especially disappointed when they do break your rules. Don’t feel guilty and don’t be disappointed – try always to view the situation in a positive light, by asking yourself “how can I explain this more simply?” or “what can I do to prevent that behavior from recurring?” The second question should answer itself. IMPORTANT: It is easy to let misbehaving kids dominate your attention. Do not let this happen. Strive constantly to acknowledge the good behavior and hard work of the earnest, as this really does make their classmates more likely to follow their example. Sometimes - especially once the school year starts - you will feel as though there are no earnest children in your classroom at all. This is simply false. All your students are potentially earnest, some more so than others; they are simply waiting on your leadership to bring them out of the woodwork.

The Inseparables: Have waited all their lives to be in the same classroom. It would be nice to believe they will want to help each other do well; it is far more likely that they will want to help each other do nothing at all. Avoid seating them near each other; if you do, chatter and extra pencils will fly back and forth between them faster than free neutrons in a uranium nucleus. Separate them before the chain reaction becomes unstoppable – you may be surprised by how greatly their performances improve.

The Silent: Will never ask a question, will never volunteer for anything, will never talk to his or her classmates, and will never speak above a whisper unless coerced into doing so by a teacher. With your attention occupied by the rest of the class, it is very, very tempting to believe the silent is quiet because he or she understands everything you are saying and needs no help. This is true in approximately 0.01% of cases. Please, please, PLEASE do not forget to help and encourage the silent – whatever you think of our country’s education laws, there is a reason that the big one is called “No Child Left Behind.”

Of course, real people can’t be pigeonholed - no student exactly fits any of these descriptions, but some students do often exhibit one or more of the behavior patterns detailed above. The important thing is to recognize recurring behaviors in your kids, determine whether they’re helping or hurting, and develop strategies to respond to them, so you don't feel like you are banging your head against a wall all year long. …So now that I’ve thrown my original “no advice” intention out the window, I think I’ll sign off. Good luck, and see you in Summer School!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Difference

How do you know when today is going to be a great day? How do you know when today is going to be an awful day? I’m beginning to get a feel for the difference – and, more importantly, beginning to understand how to change the latter into the former. Some factors you can control, some you can’t; some are a matter of preference and priorities, others are firmly set in stone.

What you CAN’T do: Make sure each of your students gets a good night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast, and a safe and bully-less bus ride to school.

What you CAN do: Arrive early enough in the morning to greet students as they arrive at school, keeping a lookout for upset children and making a point to speak positively with them before they come to class.

What you CAN’T do: Always be well-rested yourself. In a perfect world, you would have all your work done and get 9 hours of sleep each night, but none of us lives in a perfect world.

What you CAN do: Recognize when you’re tired and force an extra burst of enthusiasm out of yourself at critical moments – during your set, early in direct instruction, when you’re giving instructions for independent practice, etc.

What you CAN’T do: Expect all children to follow all rules all the time.

What you CAN do: Find real ways to discipline children that de-escalate situations rather than inflaming them. I am not very good at this – it is one area in which I’ve struggled from the very beginning, and in which I have improved little.

What you CAN’T do: Predict schedule changes – you never know when a fellow teacher might get sick or a surprise assembly might take place!

What you CAN do: Be over-planned and over-prepared, but also as flexible as humanly possible. As my very supportive administrators told me at the beginning of the year: “it’s great to be OCD about planning – just don’t be OCD about following your plan exactly, because sometimes it just isn’t going to happen.”

What you CAN’T do: Avoid getting frustrated.

What you CAN do: Avoid letting your frustrations show for the world (re: your students) to see.

What you CAN’T do: Make every parent support you and her or his child.

What you CAN do: Try. You’ll be appreciated, even if you never know it.

What you CAN’T do: Win every battle.

What you CAN do: Win some battles.

What you CAN'T do: Be perfect.

What you CAN do: Your best.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thoughts on Bridges

Recently, I pulled out the diary I kept during my year of volunteer teaching in American Samoa. It's one of the few things in life of which I'm extremely proud; three hundred and forty-one pages of scrawled thoughts on my experience as a first-year teacher, fresh out of college and lost amidst the palms and pe'a's of Pago Pago.

In looking through my entries from early March, I came across a little essay I wrote. I distinctly remember the idea rumbling through my head as I left school one afternoon, the words spinning themselves into being as I took my regular twenty-minute walk home from Tafuna High School to my apartment in Ottoville. Looking back, I'm amazed that I had the free time - and peace of mind! - to let my mind wander the way it did. I hope I can regain that sense of creativity here, where the expectations placed upon me - and those I place upon myself - are so much higher.

Day 226: March 9th


Some people believe that bridges are just an inconvenient segment of the path between two points. Bridges are bottlenecks, a straight and narrow way from which there are no choices, no detours, no escapes. When you’re driving to work or rushing to the airport, there is no more fearsome obstacle than a bridge lying between you and your destination. You want nothing more than to put the bridge behind you, and the seconds or minutes or unlucky hours you spend in its crossing are devoted entirely to your anguished contemplation of the other side.

But a bridge is more than just a path from one place to another. However useful it may be as a means of travel, it is often more useful as a destination. An expanse of water, great or small, erects a barrier to transportation, and its very impassability makes a bridge easy to find: just go, and go, and keep going, until you discover what you are looking for. Bridges connect sundered worlds: try to pass between them, and you cannot help but find a way, whether it is a sweeping artifice of stone or a single fallen log.

Bridges are places, ends unto themselves, magical worlds suspended between earth, sea, and sky, and they hold a cherished position within our hearts. They are the sites of innumerable meetings and partings, favored haunts of young lovers and old friends. They span troubled waters and golden gates. They soar over San Luis Rey, take us to Terabithia, and cross the River Kwai. From Madison County to Constantinople, they connect worlds apart – and however unsound London Bridge may have been, its foundation in our collective consciousness is eternal and unchanging.

A bridge acts as a kind of lens for the mind’s eye, focusing and amplifying the power of the human imagination. Gaze down into the water, and into your mind spring unbidden visions of innumerable possibilities: drifting silently under the tower arches as they loom above you out of the fog; feeling the pull of the water against the oars as the coxswain struggles to be heard over the screams of a thousand cheering fans; slipping from the brink and feeling the terrifying thrill of acceleration for a single heart-stopping moment; swimming through the cool, clear water on a brilliant summer’s day.

Then you look up, awaking from one dream into another, and whole new vistas open before you. You see the great green bank of the opposite shore, or the rising towers of some grand metropolis curbing away into the distance, and suddenly your mind’s eye is picturing itself in each of those places: under a tree, reading quietly by the warm golden light of the afternoon sun; walking a dog down by the water, watching it leap playfully into the waves with a splash and send a gaggle of geese soaring gracefully into the air; looking down from a million different windows in a million different buildings and seeing the same scene from a million different perspectives.

You catch a glimpse of people in every walk of life – driving to work, pushing a stroller, jogging, biking, reading, eating, sleeping, laughing, playing – and while you know that each of these people can see you, too, you feel somehow apart from them. If they look at you, they may ask themselves how it would feel to stand atop the bridge – but when you look at them, you ask yourself how it might feel to be someone else. You see the car and the stroller, the Frisbee and the football, the picnic basket and the held hand, and try to imagine a thousand lives utterly different from your own. You are the one standing on high, the one with the power to look beyond your immediate surroundings, to see the bigger picture and marvel at its fierce beauty and complexity....

*Coincidence of the Day: The bridge I had in mind as I wrote was the Weeks Footbridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts - a footbridge that bears a plaque dedicated to a fictional Harvard student named Quentin, invented by a rather well-known author named William Faulkner from a rather well-known town named Oxford, Mississippi.