Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Advice for Difficult Situations

"Good advice is rarer than rubies." 
Salman Rushdie, East, West

First of all, I don't think I'm that great at handling difficult situations. But I know I'm getting better as I get older. This is a good sign. The fact that I'm getting better also informs my advice on dealing with difficult situations.

Difficult situations can be anything--challenges with work colleagues, the death of a student, troublesome neighbors. I would argue that we only get better at dealing with difficult situations by actually having to experience difficult situations. This is what I imagine anyway. Maybe there is some training that exists somewhere that I don't know about that would have better prepared me for all the difficult situations I've faced.

I think one of the most difficult situations I faced was when a student committed suicide. The days and weeks after in that classroom seemed pointless. And, it was hard to deal with my own grief while trying to be wise for my students. But nothing could have prepared me for how to deal with that situation except its happening.

This doesn't leave much room for advice. It reminds me of the time I went camping with a friend who
had been praying for more faith. And then on that camping trip we were plagued with some wild animals in our camp all night. I panicked, and so did she, but she gained more faith, or at least she better have.

My only advice, really, is to know that difficult situations will come and to be present. Instead of letting it weight you down, try and float on it. Imagine a sea where you're floating on your back. You're there, but you're not drowning.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What is Your Favorite Book?

Recently a student asked me the question that English teachers get asked a lot--I imagine they do anyway.  "What is your favorite book?"

Oh no. This should be such an easy question, and the person asking the question figures he/she will get a really good book since clearly this English teacher reads voraciously and can offer up a good read. This thinking seems logical.  This thinking seems smart. It's an amazing short cut to a great book. But all I can think is oh no. Clearly I need a go-to that I can just casually throw out like it really is the best of the best and my favorite.

Instead of an easy answer though, I have to spend what feels like eternity in my mind sorting through the books I have read, putting them into categories, and deciding which rise to the top of all categories. What is the criteria for my favorite book? How do all of these books stack up to that judging?

Don't get me wrong. I like this question. I like it for the torture it puts me through. It's an impossible question. I can't choose one. If I'm lucky, I can give a list of top ten.

You're all really asking for my top ten list, right?

But even then, books are favorites for their overall goodness, for the time and place I read them, for the place I was in life. Books come in and out of my list of top ten, so it's not even a permanent list. Once and for all, I'm going to try and answer this question with my top ten list. These are, however, not in any particular order. I'm just not up for that mental task right now. But the books all moved me for varying and personal reasons. They all gave me a "book hangover," the intellectual and emotional equivalent of the bodily aches caused by too much booze.

So here they are. What is your favorite book?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Fly on the Wall

     In my previous classroom, I kept a fly swatter in the shape of a flip flop. The students loved it and often volunteered to take out any annoying, flying anything that happened into the classroom. And there was much excitement and cheering and relief at the death of these little creatures. So I know to wish to be a fly on the wall on campus is a potentially dangerous risk. I would be willing to take on the risk, though, because the benefits would be great. Note: This scenario assumes I could then switch back to myself as teacher and not have to live out the rest of my life as a fly.

     I know that "fly on the wall" usually has connotations of wishing someone could observe something secretly, that there would something scandalous gained from listening in on a private conversation or watching some tantalizing situation. I am not using the phrase in that sense at all. Were I to be a fly on a wall, it would be purely to observe and gather an intel of sorts. I would be more like a tiny thief. In fact, if I could, I would choose to be a fly on the wall of every classroom on campus.

     I would take notes on a tiny pad of paper with my tiny mechanical pencil. Additionally, I would listen to every word uttered and then watch the reactions of the students, studying their faces to gather data on how they perceive the information or tasks. I would visit all classrooms regardless of discipline, and I would listen to the voices of hundreds of teachers.

     Ideally, at the conclusion of my life as a fly on the wall in classrooms across campus, I would be able to return to my previous life as a teacher. But I would be a new and improved teacher, a beautiful pastiche of all the best of each teacher on campus.

Friday, February 16, 2018

2 P's of Inspiration

Sometimes I have to self-start inspiration. These times come near the end of semesters, week four of the semester, and other times based on life circumstances. I remember one point last semester when I busily ran from day to day and desperately needed something to inspire me.

It was late November, and I had not planted my fall/winter/spring flowers. I wondered why, but I couldn't come up with a reason other than being too busy. So one weekend, I headed to my favorite nursery, picked out some flowers--bright red petunias, lobelia, a couple of rose bushes, and dahlias--and potted them all in one day. I felt instantly better. I really did. I repeated this the weekend after in the back yard. Planting and nurturing those plants drew me outside, away from the distractions that don't really feed me to a quiet place where I can think and plan. Even though I was busy with work, I put that work aside to have that meditative time. Those couple of weekends with my hands in the soil (gloves are for suckers) really fed me.

And now those plantings are still bring me some joy. When I sit outside and watch them grow, my mind opens to new ideas. When I periodically get my hands busy, pruning the dead from the living, I prune the old from my mind to make room for new thinking.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Frequent Formative Assessment

     At the end of class one day, one of my students uttered, "I learned that I didn't know what I thought I knew." It was such a perfect statement that I actually scrawled it down on some scrap paper, so I wouldn't forget it. The statement came at the conclusion of a round of Kahoot (thank you, Caryn) on APA formatted in-text citations. Students had already been assigned some readings and a SoftChalk lesson on APA.

     The game was low stakes, and they played on teams--the same teams they are in all semester. They were currently working in the final days before their paper was due, so the game was supposed to be review with a few special circumstances thrown in that I knew would come up in their papers--things like a source within a source, the ampersand in parentheses for two authors, the title of an article with no author.

     The more frequent formative assessment I've been adding in to my courses with intention comes on the heels of having read Make it Stick: The Science Behind Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. One of the points made in the book is that frequent, low stakes assessment lets students check what they know and don't know prior to a summative assessment. It gives them insight into their learning. This review that I used did exactly that for almost all the students. The student who spoke the phrase which could have been quoted from the book recognized that he thought he knew more than he did. He now had a starting point to work from while editing his paper. He got a chance to make corrections to his knowledge and application prior to the summative assessment.

     I have the sentence taped to my computer now. I want to remember the value that more frequent assessment has for my students. I'm using it as reminder to give my students more opportunities to check their own understanding prior to finding out they "didn't know what [they] thought they knew" on a more significant test or essay.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Everything Is Assessment

     True/False quiz. Final exam. Furrowed brow. Essay test. Ticket out the door. Socrative. Questions posed to students. Body language. Summary of lesson learned. Poll Everywhere. Reflection. Leaning in to see what a student has written. Conversation. An assignment. In class activities. A math problem. Writing a sentence. Types of questions asked in class. KWL. A team competition. Canvas course analytics. Research papers. Listening to students in groups. Student presentations. Quiz at end of class. Midterm exams. Benchmark tests. Observation. Self assessment. Think pair share. Clearest point, muddiest point. Projects. Conversation right after class. Office hours. Thumbs up, down, or sideways. Ranking from 1-5. Clarifying questions. Socrative discussion. 3-2-1. Conferencing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Keys of Leadership

     Today's leaders have to be more cooperative and transparent than ever before.  How many of us have lived through scandals involving leaders at all levels?  How many of us have lost faith in some form of leadership--local workplace leadership and local, state, and national political leadership?  I'm sure we could all make a list of leaders who have fallen short.  Why do some leaders cause their people to lose faith? Why do some leaders fail?
     Looking at successful leaders, it's easy to see why they have remained trustworthy and admirable. Michelle Obama said, "When they go low, we go high."  Leaders go high without letting injustices off the hook.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" went high, but he still shared his disappointment with fellow clergy and white moderates for their indifference.  Interestingly enough, the second sentence of his letter reads, "Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas." While this might seem like he turned a deaf ear toward critics of his vision, instead he explains that he would not have time to get the "constructive" work done if he responded to those opposed to him and his methods. He listened, but he maintained his vision and continued his work toward justice.

     In education today, we have to continue to work toward what is best for our students even in the face of criticism, sometimes disguised in the form of budget cuts or other subtle acts of devaluing education. Educational leaders continue on.  Classroom instructors continue on.  When the noise gets too loud, we focus even more intently on our classroom and students because this is the daily work that really matters--helping students progress toward their dreams and goals.

     Finally, leaders emphasize input and cooperation from a chorus of voices. It's tough to know which words any of us say that may open up a great idea or shut down dialogue--though it's a bit easier to figure that last one out. Being authentic and kind allows all of us to take more risks.  In taking risks, we are able to achieve beyond what was thought possible.