Saturday, May 22, 2010

Final Day Blues

Yesterday was our final day of the school year. 180 days, more or less, under our belts. As a coach, I tend to miss being a classroom teacher the most during the shoulder seasons of the school year – the beginning of the year, when the challenge lies in creating a cohesive community of kids, and the end of the year, when breaking up that community results in tears and memories. Most years I can hold it together pretty well, avoiding tears by thinking ahead to the lazy days of summer.

But in the school at which I’m currently coaching, it’s the kids who leave crying each and every year. This was the third year I’ve coached here, and every time the 5th graders take their ceremonial final walk through the hallways on their way to the buses, it seems the entire school breaks down in tears, from 5th graders down to Kindergarteners. We teachers gather on the lawn to wave the buses off, and most of the kids are crowded to the windows, causing the buses to all list to one side, with tears streaming down their faces, some sobbing loudly. The boys are just as likely to be upset as the girls.

It’s a testament to the deep connection our teachers build with their students, and to the safety and comfort that the school represents in these children’s lives. When the rest of life is so uncertain, it’s comforting to know that your teacher loves you, and that school will always provide warmth, food, and opportunities for the future. We should all be so lucky to have a place like that in our lives. For it to be the place we work, well, that’s even better.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Panel of Experts

As the end of the year draws near (here in the South school ends the 3rd week of May), teachers and kids begin to get excited about the prospect of summer and the end of another school year. Some students can think ahead as far as June trips to the lake and perhaps Fourth of July fireworks, and no farther. But many students begin to wonder about the following year and what the next grade will be like. A few students feel increasingly nervous and, in my class at least, they began to feel nostalgic about our class community to the point that I began to receive an increased volume of love letters from students. Since these letters usually expressed the nervousness they felt about the “great unknown” that represented the next grade, one year I decided to put their minds at ease by compiling a “panel of experts”.

These “experts” were some of my former students from the previous year who were now much older and wiser for having been away from me and in the grade above for almost 180 days. On a day during the last two weeks of school I would invite 5-7 of my previous students to visit and be interviewed by my current class. Before their arrival we would brainstorm and chart questions we had about next year. Questions invariably revolved around the amount of homework, whether cursive was required, how hard math was and whether students were still allowed recess. But my students also wondered whether they’d be allowed to read books they wanted to read, if they could still write letters about their reading to their teacher, and whether students still were allowed to participate in writing celebrations. Uncharted, but still sometimes asked, was the biggie: “Is your teacher nice?” In reality, I think this question meant, “Does she care about you as an individual? Will she know how many brothers and sisters I have and understand why my homework wasn’t done because my uncle went to jail last night? Will she make banana pudding from the leftover breakfast bananas and come to my Little League game even if it’s at night?”

Despite some questions being left unasked, after my students had access to the panel of experts for a half hour or so, they felt much better about the prospects of the following year. The visiting “older” students enjoyed the reunion and reminiscing about old times. Oftentimes the entire group – alumni and current students – would break out in song, singing the multiplication tables as we’d learned them year after year.

Change is hard for anyone. Making the great unknown a little more “known” helped my students relax about the upcoming year and enjoy the last days of school even more. And their focus returned to where it should have been – the trips to the lake and the fireworks of July.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Re-awakening My Writing

Creaking, grumbling
The wheels begin to turn

Fifteen years of
flake off
the right side

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finding Flow

Recently I’ve been rereading “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (“chick-SENT-me-high”). It’s an easy read, conversationally written, and in it MC discusses a phenomenon he calls “flow”: the feeling one gets when an activity is so enjoyable that one becomes caught up in it and loses all sense of time. Experienced chess players, surfers, and violin players all report experiencing this feeling, but so do regular people driving to work, traders on the floor of the NY stock exchange, and students preparing a difficult school project. Runners call this feeling “runner’s high”. Others call it being “in the zone”.

These flow experiences happen when an activity is challenging and the person doing them has a high set of skills to accomplish it. Both high challenge and high skill set must be present to experience flow. If the challenge is high but the skill set is low, the person experiences anxiety – the task is too hard. If the challenge is low but the person has a high skill set, she feels relaxed. If the experience is low-challenge and low-skills, then the person feels apathetic. Housework, watching TV and “just laying around” fall in this category.

MC argues that flow experiences are what make life enjoyable. He says:

“A person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification…..It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.” [p. 31]

Reading this has made me reflect on my own flow experiences. I’m fortunate enough to experience flow many times at work – when a situation is at the cutting edge of my capabilities, and yet I feel that I’m able to do it well, I get “in the zone” and time seems to pass by in the blink of an eye. MC argues that flow experiences tend to occur when the goals are clear, and feedback is immediate and relevant. In other words, you’ve got to be working at the cutting edge of your abilities on a challenging task, know what’s expected of you, and be receiving feedback to allow you to adjust your actions as necessary.

How many of you or your co-workers experience flow at work? MC states that up to 40% of the population never has this experience. It seems a shame that some teachers might miss the opportunity to consistently feel that focused energy that comes from being “in the zone” and seeing “the light bulb go off” when teaching goes almost perfectly.

I’m still working through what this means for me as a coach. But couldn’t we increase the number of teachers who find flow in teaching? It would require that we be the sounding board to help them define their goals, and offer them honest, immediate feedback to help them adjust their instruction mid-stream. The alternative of living a work life without flow seems unacceptable.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Re-visioning Writing

It’s no secret that kids hate to revise their writing. I’ve had many students who enjoyed writing, especially once they realized our workshop was a safe community in which to be creative, but once a piece was written, it was done – notebook closed, pencil down, on to the next thing.

Katie Wood Ray, in her book “Study Driven”, says that revision should be the act of “re-visioning” your writing, a time to re-look at the piece with new eyes, often after you’ve taken a break from it for a day or so. But she also argues that in order for students to be able to re-vision their writing, they must have a vision for what it might look like in the first place. In her book, she describes various units of study possibilities (memoir, biography, editorials, etc.) by saying that each unit should start by immersing students in examples of the genre (what Ralph Fletcher calls “marinating” students in writing). That way, students have a “vision” for what their own writing might look like.

I had to do this exact process when I considered beginning a blog. Just 6 months ago I’d never visited a blog in my life. I’d heard of them but had no real working understanding of what they looked like, why people would want to “follow” them, or whether they covered any topics that would be of interest to me at all. It was an article in the Sept., 2009 issue of Educational Leadership that hooked me by describing various Edublogs and including links to the more popular choices. Once I’d “marinated” in the Edublogosphere for a few days, I had a vision for what blogging could be, and a tiny voice in the back of my head began to consider creating a blog myself.

Without that time spent exploring the genre, I never would have had a clear understanding of what this type of writing entailed. Recently I began to worry that my posts were getting too long, so I revisited my favorite blogs and looked them with new eyes – specifically looking at length. I was able to revise some of my longer drafts because I had a vision of what blogs looked like in the first place, and I used these blogs as mentor texts to help me “re-vision” what my own could look like.

This is why the concept of mentor texts is such a powerful one for students. Oftentimes as adults we make the assumption that kids understand what poetry means, or what an essay looks like, and we forget to provide them with the vision of what it is we’re attempting to get them to create. But if we allow ourselves to spend a few days at the beginning of a new unit of study really immersing our students in stellar examples of the genre, and then have those examples easily accessible during every writing workshop for students to peruse, I think we’ll find that they’re much more willing to revise. Because now they have an understanding of what they’re aiming for, and the drive to revise comes from within, rather than from the teacher.