Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Still, it was 48 degrees

Crusty is all happy about 60s for three days. We in Cheeseland have to settle for one day above 45. But still it was beautiful out. It didn't smell like spring like that last 50 degree day in February, but still.

It was a shame Crusty had me scheduled for a rest week this week. I was itchy to go fly up some hills and crush some pedals. But I'm patient. Just waiting. Seven more months until the real season starts. Another two months until the preparation racing.

But I just want to ride. I talked to a guy named Tim today who I met on the road. He's returning to riding from a nasty collision with a drunk old lady in a car. He suffered a broken collarbone (broken from the sternum), three broken ribs, broken teeth, and a finger that snapped in two and is now pinned together. Tim was just happy to be riding today.

Then I checked all the broken bones on me, reminded myself they were all healed and that I have some sweet scars for stories.

Crusty, you may see me at your door Friday night if it's still warm Saturday. Gonna be cold here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Crazy Nephews and Niece

These are the coolest nephews and niece ever: Jonah has the greenish coat, Simon has the yellow hat, Ellie is buried in the back, and Lucas has the red coat and pretends to be dead. Maybe he is dead because one of his siblings just farted...

We went for a walk in Lowes Creek Park this afternoon. Really it was more of how many times they tried to tackle me or each other, how many times we threw snowballs, and how much snow went down our necks. We had a great time walking through the woods and sliding on our butts down the hills.

When we left, I let Lucas drive out of the parking lot. Jonah refused to drive in the car and walked! My sister and brother in law are going to have some fun when these kids are all teenagers!

Parent Conferences

We met with parents last week to discuss their children and their progress.

Some of the conferences were enlightening to say the least. And I return again to notion that we as educators are totally missing the boat when it comes to adolescent education.

These adolescents are between 11 and 15 years old. Yet they are often put under an amazing set of pressures that sometimes we just add to.

Here are some samples of the conferences. In one, S., a wonderfully creative, sensitive girl of 13, sat between her mother and father. S. is in the special education program with a learning disability. S. is also a very emotional girl fully in the midst of puberty. She's not thinking about school much right now. She's thinking about boys, her body, boys, her friends and social status, her image, and boys. Her mom, on the other hand, is all about school. The mom, who works with high-powered kids, was pretty brutal to the girl. The mom demanded changes and voiced expectations that the girl could not meet, especially at this time in her life. Yes, S. needs to learn a balance between school and her social life, but that learning should be what we develop in our classrooms.

In another conference, a very bright boy, M., sat far away from his father. M. is pretty disengaged from school right now, but he kept looking at me in the conference for help. His father groused and complained and told us that his boy was no good, had never been any good. My heart was breaking throughout the conference, and I told M.'s father very clearly that M. was taking some good steps forward, that he was a good boy, and needed support. M., though, is not going to get that support from his father.

My colleague and friend John talked frankly with another parent about J., who is new to our school and desperately trying to "fit in" and try on different social groups. J. is trying, but his efforts don't always work out.

Yes, these are emotional issues that have nothing to do with learning science and social studies and algebra.

But what if we recreated our curriculums in ways that allowed S. and M. to investigate the issues that matter to them? What if they were allowed, for instance, to investigate questions that really meant something to them?

And what if they pursued questions that concerned them in an environment at school that allowed for mistakes, that graded on effort, that provided a supportive environment where kids actually learn?

I don't know how many conferences we sat through that involved kids who didn't do well on tests. Kids who can tell me complex stories and fix my cell phone don't know how to learn. And they don't want to learn material that has nothing to do with their lives, has zero relevance to their lives.

Once again, I come back to the notion that it's all about the kids. That's the bottom line. If we know what they need for their learning and their futures, why in god's name aren't we teaching that way?

The answers, obviously, are numerous, entrenched, and complex.

And I certainly never pretend to have all the answers. I'm constantly reading material looking for ideas how to pull this kind of classroom off.

But I know that on Monday, I'm sitting down with S. and M. in a conference of our own. And I'm going to ask them what they need from me, what we can work on together, what they want to learn, how I can satisfy the needs for grades.

I'm going to listen to and learn from them. And in the process, they will make me a better teacher.

Maybe their parents might start listening to them too.

At the very least, I'm going to do what I can to create a situation for S. and M. and the other kids where their parents have nothing from school to hammer them with.

At the very least, I'm going to call home and force the parents to hear me tell them what kind of positive impact their children are having on our classroom.

And at the very least, I'm going to call home, as often as I need to, to remind the parents just how cool and wonderful their kids are.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This is why teachers quit early

Perhaps I'm complaining too much, but I'm getting irritated.

I'm passionate about what I do. Helping kids learn is what I love to do.

But there's a serious disconnect in our education. Today I sat in a meeting where we were told two things: the high school teachers are unhappy with the kind of preparation middle school teachers give their kids, and the district wants us to improve our test scores.

To do this, we need to use a scripted reading program, and we can expect some kind of scripted writing program.

I looked over the 8th grade placement test for English. It is a hard test. Far too challenging for the majority of non-future-English majors in middle school. Adolescents are simply not ready for that kind of thinking.

Meanwhile, more and more research experts tell us middle school children should be THINKING, CREATING, WONDERING, QUESTIONING to create authentic learning.

The experiment in my class - giving students free reign in creating what they want to create - has gone really well in some cases. Kids who haven't been previously engaged are totally fired up about their projects. Others are coming up with interesting and creative ideas for their writing.

But others remain disengaged, as if they don't want to think. The other teachers in my team see the same thing: many kids want to be spoon-fed and not think. It almost seems like they want to be safe and fill out worksheets.

Many districts want to improve their test scores since the public often judges us on those scores. So does our district want to improve test scores by expecting less thinking? Filling out worksheets does not require any thinking.

We have so much to do to help kids learn literacy skills that they will need to be well-rounded citizens in the future. They need to read authentic texts, write authentic responses, the kind of activities that we as adults do on a daily basis.

Today, I was crabby, tired of all the fighting we have to do in order to really teach kids.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the district requirements. Maybe we'll have a day where we buzz through them, and then move on to the really important, meaningful texts that develop kids' minds.

There are some glimmers of hope: my superintendent asked me to provide the book What Every Middle School Teacher Needs to Know to him, my principal and the assistant principal.

We can only hope. The kids need to learn how to think. And that doesn't happen with worksheets.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Get out of the way

Maybe I'm just cranky today.

It sure seems that when you get a bunch of adults who are in the education world in a room, they tend to lose sight of what our job is: We teach kids.

It's the kids who matter. What do we need to do to help them? To help them learn, think, read, write, do math.

Adults, who are sometimes well-meaning, tend to screw that up and forget about our business. We are not a business. Well, maybe we are, but our clients are short, young, impetuous, curious, wound up.

Adults talk too much about teaching and don't just sit down next to a kid on the ground and find out what they're thinking, what they need. They impose lots of rules on kids instead of asking them what they are curious about, what questions they have about life.

I went to a reading conference today, and many people were talking about inquiry, questions, getting kids out of their desks asking questions, looking for answers.

Maybe I'm still a 14-year-old in mind and heart. If you're not going to help me support my kids, help me teach them, work with me to make them as strong a person as they can be mentally and emotionally, then please leave me alone. Thank you.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Our Super Bowl

The cyclocross world's Super Bowl took place this morning when Niels Albert, a 22-year-old Belgian, took off in the first lap of the elite men's championship and rode away from the field.

It was a stunning display of power and strength from Albert, who just two months ago, was lying in the hospital with a ruptured spleen.

Mike Heenan graciously offered the big screen at Crankdaddy's for the My Wife Inc family to watch the race. He cooked extra tasty ginger waffles with blueberries. The waffles helped me ski harder and longer than usual out at Lapham today! Thanks Mike.

All I could think about was how many times Albert jumped out of the saddle and how much of a time trial his ride was. Training for cross requires a lot of strength, tactical practice, and a million jumps. Bring it on!

I don't care much - actually at all - who wins the super bowl. I can watch the ads tomorrow.

I'd much rather have temps in the 50s and some good friends to go ride all afternoon. What's the groundhog going to say?

New Favorite Teaching Book

Esteemed colleague and good friend John Marzion introduced me to a book he read for his master's class: Star Teachers of Children in Poverty by Martin Haberman.

Last summer, I plowed through a book What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Trudi Knowles and Dave F. Brown. In it, the authors distill many years of research into how adolescents learn, much of it gleaned from brain research. The book instantly became a favorite because it crystallized so much of my thinking about how we should be teaching kids. How most traditional middle schools organize teaching is not the way to prepare kids.

In Star Teachers, and I've only read one chapter, Haberman, a UW-Milwaukee professor, talks about how star teachers operate. For instance, in chapter 1, star teachers:
- don't hammer kids with mistakes. They find out how to reach the kid with work that is meaningful and important to the child.
- realize that a safe and productive learning environment is the most important factor in reducing classroom discipline issues.
- homework should be meaningful, exploratory, available for all students, and should be shared, not checked off in a gradebook.
- look for effort and grade that, not ability.
- use some kind of project-based learning.
- realize that their biggest task is to turn kids on to learning, to become independent learners.

I can't wait to read the rest of this.