Through the filtered lens of my classroom, I have lived through terror before. Fourteen years ago to the day, as a beginning teacher in suburban St. Louis, I watched the dark horror of Columbine snake through the classroom T.V. I can still easily conjure the slithering shock we all felt when the Towers fell. My father, a commercial airline pilot, was flying that day and the dread I felt during the few hours it took to learn that he was O.K. will always be with me in some way. Without any real effort, I can play, on a mental loop, my colleagues’ dumbfounded reactions when their former neighborhoods in London and Mumbai were attacked.
This week has been different. The bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded only two miles from my doorstep. My neighbors and I spent yesterday “sheltering in place” as authorities searched for one of the suspects. Thankfully, nobody in my immediate community was injured in the attacks, but, of course, all Bostonians are affected.
This morning I woke up thinking about those who died: Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Sean Collier. I prayed for all those who have lost limbs, for those who must carry the mental and physical trauma of these events. I mourn for those families who must bear the tragedy of these surreal days in more immediate and lasting ways. I suppose my reactions are not any different than millions of others.
As a teacher, however, I cannot help but process this senselessness by considering how it will shape my interactions with my students. Inevitably, when people meet me and learn that I teach, I get some sort of comic empathy…something along the lines of, “Oh, man! I could never do what you do. You must be so worn down.” I always politely respond with something like, “Actually, I really love my job. Being around optimistic young people every day fills me up. I’m really thankful that my life’s work is not about making money. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.” Yet, that reaction is sometimes a lie. I do get worn down.
When teaching AP or IB English, one of the most useful things I did each year was to write at least one of the essays I assigned my students. I would select a textual response prompt I had never seen before and, within the same time constraints set on the students, I would read, analyze, and respond. I would then slip my anonymous response in with the model essays we used during review. It was always humorous and enlightening to hear my students praise and criticize my work, and once I revealed my response, they were always appreciative that I had put myself “out there.”
As teachers we can easily fall into the trap of forgetting the messy, recursive and challenging process of learning. As we repeat lessons throughout the day or re-read books each year, we remove ourselves further from the inevitable struggles inherent in any learning process. To heighten my empathy for my students’ challenges and to model good learning in action, I often do my students’ work. I try, at least once a term, to complete one of my own assignments.
I gave an Ignite speech right along with my students. An Ignite speech is five minutes long, and the speaker creates 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I have never given such a speech, so I knew I needed to do it as well. I’m glad I did. Had I simply assigned it, I never would have understood how difficult this format really is.
I easily invested six hours into my five minute speech, and I even had to take a “mulligan” when delivering the speech to the class. In the end, however, I am happy with the results.
I begin each week in the classroom with a Life Lesson. These lessons typically last five minutes, but my goal is to share with students some truth I hold dear. This week’s lesson: Little Things Add Up.
A few years ago Steve Bergen, while teaching at the Children’s Storefront School in Harlem, NY, started a Billion Penny Project. The idea began as a math lesson and quickly blossomed into a novel fundraising campaign. CBS picked up the story and ran this piece. I was part of the campaign and even made a brief appearance on national TV. Blink and you will miss me; I am in the red sweater:
Most of my best classroom ideas come from students. As a young teacher, I was wise enough (and desperate enough) to ask them what they liked about their favorite teachers. I was confident in my own bumbling, so I wasn’t fishing for false compliments. I KNEW their favorite teachers would be somebody else.
My students—luckily—were honest and kind and eager to share teaching practices they enjoyed. Like every new teacher, I struggled with classroom management and daily lesson planning. I was devoted to the idea that a teacher’s primary responsibility is the delivery of curriculum. I did not allow for any wasted time in the 45-minute period. I planned every second of class.
Fifteen years later, I’m still this way. I plan out every moment of class, but now I know to welcome (and even engineer) tangental moments where we throw out my plans. Role Call questions are one of the most productive ways to steer off course. Continue reading