Teachers Are Not The Sun: Recentering Our Classrooms

I’m really into centering and focus lately in my teaching practice. The more and more I understand how it affects my everyday life, the more I see its implications in my work.

So, this weekend, I was frustrated when I saw not just one, but THREE separate discussions that, paraphrased, said, “if you’re a non-educator or not a teacher, I’m not interested in your opinion on my classroom.”

And I was like:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/viktortk/25-types-of-shady-looks-you-should-be-using-m2eg#.rdwJrnQ5Z

then I was like:

.

Like, damn. As mentor and #educolor member Melinda Anderson pointed out, it’s an “epidemic.”

But I get it. I get it. Being a teacher is hard. Real hard. We face a lot of outside babble from folks trying to tell us how to do the job and actually being totally wrong, because you don’t know what a classroom is like until you step in there.

That’s really frustrating, and I understand if it has made us guarded. It makes us want to protect the few precious parts of our job that we have ownership over, that don’t feel stripped away by testing we may not agree with or other bureaucracy that, often, doesn’t make sense in our classrooms. You have a right to feel frustrated and skeptical. I often do too.

Still, you’re really gonna tell me that the only people qualified (or even those who are most qualified) to have an opinion on education are only teachers?

Only teachers are capable of understanding the ~mystical ways~ of our students, or our classrooms? Better yet (or worse), you wanna tell me that the academics from places that–you guessed it– are often institutionally racist/sexist/privileged know more about kids than their parents or community?

If you really think that the parents, community members, and other important folks in a student’s life don’t have just as much right to have an opinion as you do, what are you even doing here, bruh?

That sounds harsh, but for all the talk I see about “student-centered” classrooms, I see VERY LITTLE walking the walk.

So many teachers make it all about them and refuse to take outside support from community members. That’s an incredibly frustrating thing to witness, and I’m not even a parent! I can’t imagine what rage I would feel if my kid’s teacher told me that even though I share culture, race, and background with my student (beyond, ya know, being related to and raising this child),  I unequivocally cannot have an opinion about what happens for hours a day in that classroom.

Don’t get me wrong: parents aren’t always able to see a clear picture of their kids either, at least for the time students are in the classroom. Sometimes, we have to remind folks what we’re seeing in the day-to-day. I’m not saying that parents or community members are always right.

But, especially when most teachers are White women, I have a hard time believing that they have any right to only listen to their opinion, or the opinion of outsiders to a community and ignore those who are from the community. How is that student centered?

Melinda brought up this excellent point when we talked about it online: when many of your teachers are not from the community and don’t share the cultural context of their students, forcing parents and community members to stay silent is a form of colonialism in our practice.

Communities have the right to self-author their stories through their children. My job as a teacher isn’t to outshine or shout over that– it’s to expose them and give them the tools to help them share it even louder!

The lack of humility it takes takes to decide that your voice or only your views on education have merit is not just rude, it’s dangerously restrictive and privileged. You do not get to call your teaching “student centered” when you purposefully ignore the voices and beliefs of those who influence student lives in favor of what you believe is “educated” thought. 

I tend to think of a school community a little like a solar system. If my students are the center (which they should be), like the sun, then the bodies closest to them– parents, coaches, teachers etc– are the ones that not only have largest spheres of influence and connection (gravitational pull, if you will), but also the most reliable knowledge about what it’s like closest to that center.

I am very bad at art, but since I am trying to improve my visual aids, I have put together this Google Drawing to illustrate what I’m thinking:

Student Centered Solar System

As the chart shows (fancy, I know), no one is cut out of the picture here (and this is a pretty unfinished picture, despite how ~fancy~ it is). No one is saying that even the media or edu-companies should be cut out.

All I’m saying is this, bottom line: the closer you are to kids, the more you have a shared language, cultural context, and understanding of not just them, but all the stories that helped make them them, the more you can help.

Sometimes, even a lot of times, that’s a teacher. Sometimes, though, it’s not just a teacher, you know?

Look, no one is saying to silence teacher voice. Clearly, teachers are the ones in the trenches, day-to-day, dealing with what happens in schools. Saying that parent voice matters or community voice matters does NOT mean we ignore teacher voices, or even the voices of academia.

Research (especially from researchers who are social-justice-oriented or from communities we teach in, but that’s another post) is not the enemy. Teachers or parents aren’t the enemy. Even edtech companies aren’t the enemy. No one is the enemy. Everyone has something cool to offer.  It’s not a zero-sum gameNo one has to win or lose. We can all win.

The only way that happens, though, is if we consistently center the work on our students. If you really want to serve students, and center on them, but you have no relationships with students, you know what you’re probably going to be driven to do? TALK TO SOMEONE WHO DOES AND GIVE WEIGHT TO THEIR THOUGHTS.

And teachers? If we truly center on our students– as often as we can– and ask ourselves: who knows more about this kid right now? I bet the answer may not be us, or the amazing teaching practice book we just read, or that awesome article we loved when we were in teacher prep.

It’s probably going to be a parent, family member, friend or better yet: the student themselves.

I love teachers. I am teacher. I love being one, and I love working with other great teachers. I’m just asking us to remember– when it’s hot outside, when summer has us punchy and squirmy– to remember why we got into the work. Don’t cut out the people that help create the folks you really want to help the most: your students.  

Conversations With Literature – Using Instagram With “The Count of Monte Cristo”

So, after hearing Pop Culture Happy Hour’s show on “Required Reading,” I was struck by something that Margaret Willison and Glen Weldon mentioned. To paraphrase, they said: “Literature shouldn’t be in under glass as at a museum. It should be something students have a conversation with.”

What a reminder and revelation! I’m currently teaching The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m planning on eventually turning it into a mock trial, per this amazing lesson plan, but if you’ve read the book, you know: it starts out slow. There’s a lot to get through. It’s going alright, but that podcast specifically made me take pause and really consider what I could do as a quick, fun lesson to reinvest them a little.

I did a lesson with Tom Sawyer where I had my students make fake instagram accounts on Google Drawing as part of understanding characterization. I decided to do the same for TCoMC after Dantes’s 14 year prison stint. It also happened to be a Tuesday. This led to…

TCOMC #TransformationTuesday Assignment

Their assignment: Fill out a fake Instagram post for any of the characters we’ve met so far in the book. How have they changed since Dantes went to prison?

I give my students the templates via Google Classroom, since each student can get a copy of the template I created (templates below).

The results

Overall, I thought this assignment went well, especially as a good informal and formative assessment. This project help me realize that, with the amount of twists and turns in the book, I definitely needed to give some of my students more scaffolding (eg a character map) to remember what’s happened so far to characters.

It also helped me get a better understanding of how my students are perceiving characters, as well as gave me the opportunity to talk through some important character points they may have missed (eg Mercedes overcomes of low expectations about her ability to become educated from Dantes himself).

That said, this was another great chance for my students to show their creativity. ALL the ones they did are available here, some favorites below:

  
What I’d Change or Add: Due to time, I didn’t follow up beyond this assignment. I wish I had given stricter guidelines as well. Also, next time I’ll give a writing portion to ensure that they were actually focusing on characters and not just doing a fun insta post that was tangential to the book (I did this with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and found it to be useful).

Also, to increase the conversation aspect, I think that you could make this an AWESOME long term project and assign characters to members of a small groups. Then, have them talk to each other via the fake instagram accounts! A lot of students used comments to show connections with other characters, which I didn’t even ask them to do. I think there’s something interesting there.

Alright, more to come soon, I’m sure. Hope this was helpful!

Resources

Over-Planning and Keeping the Adventure

Hello again. It seems like I got a few followers from my last post. Cool! Hi! *wave*

Anyway,  I just set a 5 min timer. I’m going to try and write for at least as long as my students have to. That seems like a good start (though I’ll probably go over).

I had to ignore the alarm I set on my clock to write each week because I got caught up in lesson planning. I’m pretty behind of what I thought I’d get done over the break, which I finally realized today. Definitely my own fault– I forgot to bring the books my kids are reading, which is about the dumbest thing ever. I blame the sudden and complete overthrow of productive-brain for vacation-brain.

So I started jamming today, and realized a few things:

1) The online app for student discussion I had planned on using with my students doesn’t actually fit my needs. Through a series of tweets, a facebook post, and even a G+ post, I’m trying to crowdsource the best response. BTW if you stumble upon this post and know one, I’d love to hear from you.

2) I need to give my students more formative assessment over the course of a book. They asked for it! I allowed my students to give feedback, and most of them said they want to do MORE while we’re reading. So, time to get crafty and figure out some great projects for them to do.

and finally 3)

I’m worried about over-planning, however, and ruining the sense of adventure and spontaneity that I can gain with my students.

Some background: I’ve never been great at lesson-planning, or just planning in general. It’s always been a HUGE area of struggle for me in my practice. I have the skills to create a good project plan, but when it comes to the doing of something, I’m a big procrastinator. This is actually a reason I went back to the classroom– the jobs that I had had were all fuzzy and “project based,” which I appreciate, but realized is not an environment I do well in. I am trying to own the fact that, unless I’m REALLY COMPLETELY hyped about a project, or someone is going to hold me accountable to get something done (like, say, 28 children in a classroom looking at me saying, “What are we doing today, Ms. T?”), it’s going to be completed in the 5 minutes before I need it.

Now, this has been generally fine this year. I did make a point to unit plan my year, and the school I work at has a daily English curriculum that we follow each day. Beyond believing in it as a curriculum, it makes my life MUCH easier as a teacher. That said, I am worried about getting lazy and falling back on this too much, something I think I may have done at the end of this semester, and lose out on the opportunity to do some great projects.

SO, I’ve been trying to get better about planning. What I’m worried about, though, is that if I over-plan now, I won’t leave any wiggle room for some fun projects I come up with on the fly. For example: after hearing some of my students talk about Instagram, I got the idea to have them create Instagram accounts for characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (my example). I threw the activity together that morning, which was nuts but often where my best ideas come to light, and the kids and I had a blast. They also did a great write-up.

In general, I am trying to leave things more up to God to point in my direction (I think St. Ignatius called this “spiritual freedom” or “ambivalence”). This morning, for example, I had planned to do a 12-mile long run. I wasn’t feeling it almost as soon as I started, but I tried to keep moving and power through. As I was running, I realized that there was a national park open I’d never explored before. I decided to head over and check it out. Did it screw with my splits and mileage? Sure, but it was really pretty and certainly fun.

So how do you find balance between good planning and the freedom to play? How can I make sure I don’t get lazy and not push my kiddos and myself, but still let us take the time we need? In an education environment so test-heavy and over-focused on scores (which I am always worried my school will become), I want to make sure I enjoy the fact that my kids aren’t hindered by this and we can take the time to explore stuff.


Anyway, beyond that, life’s good. Planning, writing, running, napping. Ah vacation, you are great.

I also, by the way, have a 2015 Resolutions post coming. I decided to submit something to HuffPost Hawai‘i though, so we’ll see if it gets play there first.