On College Education

October 6, 2020

Well. Looks like I’m stepping back up on to my soapbox. What’s got me so fired up this time?

My college son called me to chat about one of his professors. Things have gotten so bad that students banded together and complained to university higher-ups, so much so that the department issued its course evaluation survey halfway through the semester.

After hearing my son read his responses listing the numerous ways in which this class and its instructors have fallen short, I found myself really,

really,

REALLY wanting to call up this department and give them a piece of my mind.

But I’m not that kind of gal. Besides, it sounds like the students are already advocating quite well for themselves.

Still, as someone who dedicates her entire life and livelihood to the pursuit of excellence in teaching, I can’t just let this go.

So here’s what I WOULD say, if I were one who would say it.

Dear Professor,

Let me start by saying this. Your job is HARD. You’ve been asked to step in for the very first time to teach this undergraduate course. What’s more, you’re being asked to do it in the middle of a pandemic, and while the university is doing everything it can to protect your life and the life of the students, we are in a scary time. And you are being asked to teach in ways that your predecessors never had to consider.

What I’m imagining you think and believe right now? First of all, that you really know your stuff. You know that the class you’re teaching is HARD, and it requires you to teach an encyclopedic amount of information. I’d also like to believe that you truly want what’s best for your students. And I’m also wondering if you’re starting to realize that KNOWING material, and being able to teach it MEANINGFULLY are two separate animals.

I’m also going to guess that you were thrown into teaching this course without any training or support in pedagogy, or the foundations of teaching. I’m going to guess that the preparation and mentorship you were given as an instructor may have been limited to a copy of the syllabus as it had been previously, as well as your own experiences when you were a student.

I can’t fault you for that. You are a part of a bigger system that values the quantity of content over its instructional delivery. You are a part of a bigger system that values publishing credentials over the craft of teaching.

I also imagine you think I may be speaking out of turn, that as an elementary teacher I don’t have enough understanding of college students to know what good instruction looks like at the collegiate level.

I’m going to be straight with you. Good teaching is good teaching is good teaching. Let me repeat that. Good teaching. Is good teaching. Is good teaching.

The same foundational principles that apply to teaching first grade will resonate with fifth grade. With eighth grade. With high schoolers. With college students. With anyone. Why? Because at the heart of things, we are all human beings. We are curious. We learn when we are motivated. We crave connection, feedback and growth.

I’m guessing the complaints you’re getting right now feel pretty terrible. Critical feedback, especially in this volume, can really sting. But it’s also a wake-up call. You can be better. You can improve the experience for all. How? Here are a few places to start:

1. Respond to your students’ communications promptly and sincerely.
2. Give your students meaningful, prompt feedback on their work.
3. If you can’t give meaningful and prompt feedback, it’s a sign. You are assigning too many things. Pull back.
4. During classes, use presentations as a starting point rather than a script. Your students will engage more, and retain more, if there is context and explanation of the material.
5. Be a person to your students. If they connect with you, they’ll connect with the material.

Maybe this way of teaching is different from how you learned this content. Maybe this way of teaching isn’t valued in a system like the one you are in. Maybe you haven’t gotten the guidance and mentorship you needed as an instructor. But from one educator to another, we both know this is how we best learn, and we know it is what our learners deserve – no matter the level.

You can do it. I have perfect faith in you.

Teacher Life, Exhibit P

October 3, 2020

Scene: Indiana Dunes State Park. I’m hiking with my husband. It’s a cool, crisp early autumn day, the wind is at our backs, and we have the place to ourselves. The only sounds in my ears are the crashing of waves, the crush of hiking boots on sand, and the echo of my thoughts. It’s the perfect space for spiritual reflection, for connecting to the universe.

Me, lost in thought: Hey!

Husband: What?

Me: I just thought of a really cool lesson idea using just the first chapters of a bunch of novels.

Husband: Do you ever stop working?

Me: …

So…no. The answer is no. There will always be something that gets me started. I might be thinking about that one kid. Or a book line that makes me think about a lesson I’ve taught. Or a blog post that I need to share with some loveys.

Or. or. or.

Long Day

September 29, 2020

Today was hard.

It was long, and it felt heavy in my hand and in my heart.

It was full of colleagues, and students, and friends, and family members, who are struggling in one direction or another, and who needed time and love and attention and compassion.

And I gave it, in one direction or another, as many times and in as many places and to as many people as I possibly could.

And I hope that this day, as heavy as it was, might have been made just a touch lighter in one direction or another. Because I know that there will be a day when I am struggling in one direction or another, and I will need time and love and attention and compassion.

Until then, there is cake.

Requiem

September 19, 2020
From wikimedia commons. But…the picture that would BEST go with this poem? It’s on the side of a fridge somewhere, or somewhere in a big dusty photo album, or framed by someone’s bedside, or in someone’s wallet, or or or…

As we scroll through our newsfeeds
And text one another
And see post after post after post
And listen to the news
And speak to one another
Of her passing –

As we mourn her presence
In our world, her strength
In the face of adversity, her voice,
Silent –

As we claim her loss
With our own grief –

As we remember
Her work
Her dissent
Her fearlessness –

I can’t help but think
Of the shiva-sitters, her survived-bys:
Her children
Her grandchildren

Gathered together at home,
Sometimes hushed
Sometimes noisy in conversation
Celebrating a woman
Who sometimes kept condiments past their expiration
Who always answered the phone a certain way,
Remembering together
What soap she kept in the guest bathroom
Which living room chair was her favorite
What stories she read them
What kind of hugs she gave
How her hands felt to hold them

I think on them, and I see
Our own grand pain
Our outsized grief and agony
Writ small,
Etched deep.

in memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1933-2020

So…How Are You?

September 16, 2020

“Plugging along.”
“About as well as I can be.”
“Chugging along.”
“Just fine, which is all about any of us can ask.”

These words come out of my mouth repeatedly. Perhaps you find yourself giving the same responses.

To tell you the truth, that really is where I am. I’m…okay, I guess. I’m doing fine, which is perhaps the best I can do.

Enter a dear writing colleague, Fran, and her keenly insightful writing on what it means to thrive. Please, please, please go and read her work.

(You’re welcome.)

Like any powerful writer has the ability to do, she left me with more questions than answers. She left me with wisdom and a new perspective on how we as humans always need to grow. But she also left me in the discomfort that perhaps there is something not-quite-right about what I’m currently asking out of life right now.

The answer is no. I am not thriving right now. I can’t think of one part of my life I’d characterize as “thriving.” Growing, yes. Changing, evolving? Absolutely. But these movements run deep and pace themselves slowly. To me, thriving suggests a bursting forth, a positive leap ahead.

The more I think about it, though, there may be another dimension to my own current “failure to thrive,” something I haven’t yet fully explored:

I’m not thriving right now because I don’t feel it’s fair.

Too many among us are living the worst of their fears, their traumas, their loneliness, their poverty, their inhumane treatment, their grief. I don’t feel right claiming to thrive during a period so marked by pain and suffering.

So many people need more from this world right now. And to me, working past survival and into “thrive” mode makes me feel I am demanding more than my share.

I’m sure there’s more to explore here. There’s something to be said about claiming our space in this world, about sitting in the discomfort of our growth, and about giving ourselves permission to be the most of who we are regardless of circumstance.

For now, though, I will take my somehow-getting-along-okay and my slow, deep sea changes, and I will wear them proudly. I’ll just…keep…plugging along.

Stepping Back Up to the Soapbox

September 15, 2020

I have a lot of soapboxes to stand on when it comes to education.

I mean…c’mon. Just look at the name of my site.

from Etsy.com

It’s easy to get riled up about things when you feel as passionately I do about teaching, when you have as much faith in public schooling as I do.

One of my soapboxes is storytelling. It’s an incredible medium for sharing text that we don’t give enough credit to. People, the number of things that happen in our brains, big or small, when we hear a story being told? You could track the research here, or here, or here, or…

Aaaugh, I’m doing it again! All right, Lainie. Inhale. Exhale.

Now.

One of my storytelling soapboxes? Using storytelling as a way of crafting narrative. The way I put it is this. Our brains our lightning fast, like cheetahs. Our hands are super slow, like turtles.

When we ask children to write, we tell the cheetah and the turtle to keep the same pace.

No wonder so many kids struggle.

Oral language is that bridge, and it links our thoughts and words together in a manageable way. Think of it this way – how often do you have to talk through a problem to find a solution for it?

Through storytelling, writers at all stages of readiness understand that they hold the power of composition, even if their handwriting or typing skills don’t yet demonstrate it.

And yet oral language largely goes ignored at school, despite the fact that it’s one of the most powerful tools we have.

It’s why I had such a WIN when, a few years ago, I was able to bring a storytelling unit to one of the grades I work with. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be in good hands with my colleagues.

Boy was it ever. I got the most amazing affirmation of my efforts in a planning meeting today, as teachers discussed their upcoming unit on personal narrative. Here are a few highlights…

Me: This might be a place where storyboarding would be great. It would help your writers use oral language to draft and organize your thoughts.

Them: Oh, we already do that!

Me: I find it helpful to sketch the first and last squares of the storyboard, then fill the action in between to build the story.

Them: Oh, we already do that! You taught us that.

Me: One trick for kids working on dialogue is to make quick puppets out of pencils and let them play with the characters.

Them: Oh, we already do that! That’s what you taught us.

Me: … (smiles inwardly, shuffles feet) …

What do I love best about these exchanges?
1. I love to learn and grow. I feel lucky to see colleagues do the same.
2. It’s affirming to know that things I see as good teaching…ARE.
3. I love making myself obsolete because others have pushed forward.

…I’d probably better stop before I get on another soapbox. Like I said, it’s easy to get riled up about things when you feel as passionately as I do…

Joy in the Time of COVID

September 8, 2020

So many moments of wonder,
Of joy
To hold high and to honor –

A real live letter from a student pen pal
Colleagues who find strength in one another
The college son who just feels like a chat
Blue skies, uninterrupted
A new recipe that works
Walks with friends
Watching people you love do what they love

All these moments of wonder,
Of joy
Flutter and wave about –

And yet.
But still.

I cannot remember the last time,
Passing by a flag,
That I have seen it raised
Above
Half mast.


Ever Have That Time…

August 27, 2020

…when your seventeen year-old starts complaining that there aren’t any healthy snacks in the house, so you tell him you’re going grocery shopping and are taking requests for healthy snacks, and then he doesn’t suggest any, and then you come home after school and invite him to come shop with you so he can find the healthy snacks that he can eat because you don’t have anything to eat in the house, and then he comes with you to the grocery store to go shopping for healthy snacks because he needs to see for himself what he actually wants, and then the first thing he puts in the basket is literally something that we already have in the house, and then he asks his friend who he’s face-timing in the grocery store because he’s seventeen what kinds of healthy snacks he likes and his friend suggests something else that we have in the house, and then your seventeen year-old proceeds to walk up and down aisles suggesting all of the things that you currently have in your pantry and freezer and fridge and storage and so you leave with pretty much nothing in your cart except the stuff you originally had on your shopping list?

…no…?

yeah, me neither.

The snacks in question. Clearly I am trying to starve someone out.

Thought Bubble, Speech Bubble

August 25, 2020

Guess what brave things I did today?
a) I got out of my bed
b) I committed to working out – and did
c) I announced that I wasn’t cooking dinner tonight
d) All of the above

Of course, there was something I didn’t do today, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m wise, or because I was just plain chicken.

There I was, waiting for an ice cream order at our local spot. The place usually gets quite a crowd, and from what I’ve seen, most folks try and manage pretty well to give others space and follow social distancing rules.

But then I saw them. A group of about 8 or 10 upper elementary-aged kids crowded around a picnic table, no space, no masks, sharing fries and food here and there. There were about 4-5 dads nearby, from what I could tell.

Those random guys could have been MY students. Or of any of my other local colleagues who have to go in to school to teach them in person tomorrow.

A photo NOT of the folks I saw, because that’s how I roll. #WeGoHigh

It was really hard for me to see that.

It was REALLY hard – physically hard – for me to see that, and not say something to that group.

Because I didn’t want to be THAT person.

Still, I did have the time to imagine a speech in my head:

“Hi there. Listen, I’m not trying to raise a scene. I don’t want to start an argument with you or anyone. It’s actually really hard right now for me to speak. But there’s something I need you to know.

“I’m a teacher. My school leaders, colleagues and I spent our summer preparing for the logistics of an in-person return to school this fall. We have spent even more time lying awake at night anxious about our safety, about the safety of our families, and about the safety of our school community.

“I don’t expect anything from you, but I just need you to know that it’s really hard for me to see your group together, knowing how much we we do to keep kids safe while they’re in our care, and knowing how hard we work to keep our end of the bargain.

“And I just need you to hear that if I knew my own students were out doing this same thing, and perhaps putting classmates or other teachers at risk, I’d be heartbroken.

“Again, I don’t expect anything from you. I just…needed you to hear me.”

Then my ice cream came. I decided that I didn’t wind up saying anything to the group because:
a) I didn’t want my ice cream to melt
b) I’m not super into guilt trips
c) I’m not sure I’d actually have been heard
d) I didn’t trust myself to speak sincerely and without judgement or anger
e) All of the above

Instead, I took this evening as an opportunity to remember:
a) I can only control me
b) Emotions, even negative ones, are perfectly okay to feel
c) There is power in letting go
d) Sometimes ice cream really can fix things
e) All of the above

This is Not a Paper Clip

August 24, 2020

this post is dedicated to A.H., whose cleverness and sincerity make me deeply proud to know such wonderful people

I’m easy to please.

Which is good, because as a teacher and as a mom, I can’t wait for big grand gestures to bring me a sense of satisfaction or well-being. I’d be here all day.

No, joy comes to me in small pockets:
-The sounds of cicadas humming
-A dog who insists on curling up at my feet because I’m her person
-A plate of scrambled eggs and toast on a hard day

And what filled my heart to bursting today?

Some of you who have read my posts before know that I’ve been pen pals with some of my loveys. It’s been a wonderful way to stay connected during a difficult time. I started with about a dozen or so, then it trickled down to correspondence with about five kids by the time school ended. Summer…not so much.

Lo and behold, one of my former students has continued to write to me. What a joy it was to receive her letter and read it today.

I was most excited that my pen pal letter today contained this:

“This [paper clip] is an ant catapult”

It’s an invitation to play the game “What is This?”

You see, way back when, about five years ago, on the very first day of our group, I introduced a game to this girl and her friends. The game has been around, but I don’t know its actual name. I call it “What is This?” Here’s how to play:
-Start with an ordinary object (toothpick, pencil, scissors, roll of tape).
-The “starter” holds the object.
-Someone asks the “starter” what it is. “What is this?”
-The starter says EXACTLY what it is – “This is a _______ ,” then hands it off.
-The next person says, “No, it’s not a ____. It’s (makes up some imaginative idea for what it could be).”
-The object gets passed and re-branded throughout the group.

One rule is that the object has to possibly be used for that purpose, even if it’s silly. I could pretend a pencil is anything – a rocket ship, a pizza, a computer. But that’s not what this game is about. This game forces me to look at form and function. At shape and material. That pencil really could be a baseball bat for a rabbit. A back scratcher. A dart. A nose picker.

Every day, we as teachers do activities for fun, for enjoyment, for learning, never quite knowing what kids carry with them. We don’t often get the privilege of finding out what our loveys remember from our time together. Yet here is one of my kids, thoughtful and creative enough to remember this game and figure out how to start up a round together even though we’re apart.

It’s quite possibly one of the cleverest ideas I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m still smiling about it.

In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. I took that paper clip, taped it on to my own letter, and I wrote my response.

Are you feeling creative? Do you have something else this paper clip could be? I’d love to see it below in the comments.