Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of the Science Teacher

I thought it would be interesting to keep the few people that read my last blog up to date with the journey the Science teacher is taking (read my last blog for context). Here is all that I've communicated (via text messaging) with him this past week.

Through text messaging, I directed the Science teacher to my blog post from last week saying "does this blog post sound familiar?"  This was his text reply:

"I think I know a guy just like that. That's a pretty accurate depiction and seeing it described like that does make me feel a lot better (thank you). 

The biggest challenge is in helping the students (who have very little experience with power) learn how to use their power productively in my classroom. Its rocky at times, and smooth at others. But its never perfect (100% of students engaged 100% of the time). 

My biggest fear is that other adults use those really rocky times to validate their cynicism. I see how important it is to persist when we've had a bad day, or too much off task behavior. I want to model that persistence for my students and I don't mind if they see me struggle at times. Its a work in am I are my students. 

So some days it falls short of my vision and sometimes the other adults shake their heads and roll their eyes. But I'm very confident that my students are meeting the learning goals dictated by the curriculum and many are taking opportunities to go beyond those goals. Its definitely worth the trouble and angst." 

(I then swore him to secrecy about my blog handle etc...etc...)

In another text from this Science teacher he states:

"Project based learning is where its at. Damn these common assessments though. During the 'acquisition' phase when the kids learn all the facts for the test, overall engagement is much lower than during the project phase. I really wish I could throw out all the tests and do projects every day."

I responded with a simple "Yes!" Then I sent him a link to a blog post that says so eloquently things I haven't been able to communicate well.

He responded several days later:

"Read some of the Rivers article. Its long. Ill finish it later. One of my students told me that my classroom is like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. I never saw the movie but Ill take that as a compliment. Also, a seventh grader who comes to my room for Scioly (Science Olympiad Club) wrote on my board "Welcome to Mr. ____'s classroom where dreams come true."

Hahaha! This all has very little with what I do. It has more to do with what I REFUSE to do. It is really strange to me that students compare the little bit of power and freedom I give them to magic and dreams.

I know they are being hyperbolic but I think they mean to be sincere. Does the rest of their day suck so much that the 43 minutes absence of sucking makes them happy?"

I replied, "Does the rest of their day suck so much that the 43 minutes absence of sucking makes them happy?" ...Yes!

A few days later I told him that I have been getting to know one of the 7th grade teachers better. I said:

 "I've mostly been talking about sports (he coaches one of my kids) but I've been dipping my toe in about education. I think I am going to start working on him. Perhaps give him a peek into the rabbit hole."

The Science teacher responded:

"He'll be a tough one to win over, it will be a good challenge for you. I might be wrong though. He might be more open minded than I give him credit. My impression is that he doesn't think about school when he is not at school. I could be wrong."

I said:

"He is open minded about some basic stuff like using devices in school and that sort of thing, but he is big on being the BOSS!"

The Science teacher replied:

"What was I like four years ago when you started working on me?"

I said:

"You liked kids but you were the boss, but you were open to anti-conformist type ideas."

He replied:

"Yep. I went through a 'boss' phase and I was very typical for my first ten years. But I did conform to the adult expectations. And I was very resistant to you at first. I liked the feeling of thinking I knew what I was doing and that was really hard to let go of."

Have a great week everybody and GO EAGLES!!!!!


Saturday, November 8, 2014


I know a science teacher who loves working with kids so much that he becomes depressed every June knowing that his current group of 8th graders are going to be leaving the middle school. This Science teacher has more high school kids come back to visit him than the rest of the staff combined.

Whats so special about this science teacher? He treats the kids like people. He talks with them like they are equals. He sits with them at lunch. He removes the authority boundaries in his classroom. He gives them freedom, as much as the system allows, during class.

This Science teacher stays after school with anywhere from 10 to 30 students four days a week so that the students can work on science projects for various regional and state science competitions. "If you really want to do science you have to stay after school," the teacher often says to me with a grin.

When you walk by this science teachers class it is messy. Kids are in the hall throwing balsa wood airplanes, testing mousetrap cars, or working on the computer to learn the mandated "content." Inside the room kids are everywhere. They are in the corners measuring levers, gluing, cutting, revising and testing. It is loud. It is chaotic and many traditional teachers in the building hate it and suggest that the "inmates are running the asylum" (real quote).

I visit often. I talk with him often. I try to relieve his angst often.
What does he have angst about? Two things usually.
The lesser of the two is the few judgmental adults. The adults that make comments. The adults that judge him passively and not so passively. The adults that remind him that their job is a bit harder because they have "rules" that need to be enforced in their rooms and its difficult "when they come from your room."

Forget the fact that we have more regional science winners than ever before. Forget the fact that our kids are truly believing again (like they believed when they were much younger) that they like science.
None of that matters. What matters to these few angst causing adults is that the kids are harder to control due to the Science teacher giving the kids some control.

The main area where this teacher has angst is in figuring out how to engage the students. How to create an environment where all of them are in a totally absorbed state of mind without even realizing it. How does he get the kids looking and acting like a group of kids enthralled in a video game....while at the same time meeting the expectations of the institution?

How does he convince the kids to learn for the sake of learning while at the same time saying "clear your desks for the test?" How can he best keep the flow of the learning going while also making sure they know the vocab words that are on the common assessments and state tests?

I walk in this classroom nearly everyday, but when I walked in towards the end of one of his classes this past Wednesday the teacher was sitting down with the students and asking them, imploring them to help him figure out how he can engage ALL of them.
"When you think about learning, when you think back to the times that you were really motivated, what types of things were you doing?" He asked them.

A student answered, "friendly competitions." Many other students perked up at this answer and chimed in "Yeah, like jeopardy type games, where we collaborate for the answer and stuff."

"Or like when  we made those Rube Goldberg machines and we were trying to beat the other groups."

The bell rang and I stayed to debrief with the teacher about the conversation he just elicited.
He told me, "before you came in I was telling the students I really needed them to stop worrying about grades, and they told me "we have been taught since kindergarten that the most important thing is to get an A."

"Yep," I said. "getting the right answer and the importance of an A is pounded into them at school and at home."

I continued, "what I realized, as the students were talking with you, was that they didn't even comprehend what you were asking them. They can't separate learning from a test. So when you ask them how can they be engaged they simply think about ways they are motivated to learn for the test.
Kids want the answer to "why are we doing this." For some the motivator is simply for the grade. For others the motivator is, "to win the game," or, "so I don't get in trouble," There are some that jump right in just for the sake of learning something new....but I don't think there are a lot of those kids."

Of course, saying this to the Science teacher caused him more angst. "I don't know what I'm doing." He responds. "I don't know how much longer I can do this. School keeps getting in my way."

"That means you're doing it right," I replied. "Its the people that have it all figured out that I worry about. The kids love you, and they respect you because they know you respect them. Plus, they love science again."

"Yeah, but next year when they visit they are going to tell me how they are getting their teeth kicked in because Science is so hard. Am I doing them a disservice by not preparing them for that?"

"We don't need to prepare kids to deal with things that suck. They had many classes that required them to sit, study, and regurgitate before they ever had your class. You are showing them what Science in school can be...and we never know which of your students may grow to be teachers themselves. Perhaps they will model your class."

"Thanks bud." He said, "But, I don't know what I'm doing."


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Find Your Own Way

As I struggle to get to know myself better. As I continue to spin on the same topic year after year, I realize, looking back, that I have grown tremendously. When I first came down with this disease called "education angst," I was so angry. I took to blogging but I stopped because my words were venomous. I was judging in the wrong places. I was name calling, and I was confused. I needed to figure me out. I needed to step back and watch me. Watch my triggers. Watch my responses. Why was I mad at teachers? Why was I mad at parents? Why was I mad at principals and superintendents? Why was I mad at myself.

It was so much easier when I thought what everybody else thought. It was so much easier when I was in the Matrix (as I like to call it).

I am no longer mad at people. I understand people better now, but I still get really frustrated.  I know why all the aforementioned continue to work in this system of contradictions. Tradition, indoctrination, group think and, (the one I have trouble with the most) they continue because they simply think its the right thing to do.

Friends, fellow twits, colleagues, and family members have been dealing with my constant education dialogue for over five years now. Some of these people smile and nod, others continue to listen and help me with my thinking, and others challenge my thinking. Yet many still say "so, do something about it, put up or shut up! stop complaining and make something happen." Comments like these always struck a nerve. I wasn't quite sure why it struck a nerve. My "Psyche 101 self," thought it struck a nerve because those people were right. "Complaining is easy Sis, fix it."

We adults have a tremendous need to shut up and do something about it. Anything, so we can wipe our hands and say , "there, I fixed it...whats next?" Dissonance doesn't feel good. When it presents itself we want to put it away in a box as quickly as possible. The best way to deal with dissonance is to create a solution. Any motion is better than no motion.

We do that with kids all the time. We create "plans" for kids that are struggling in school. The underlying problem isn't fixed but we did something. We created a behavior plan, we put up anti-bully posters, we gave a detention. Problem presented, action taken. Done.

What I have come to realize is that I am doing something. This is what I am doing. I am talking about it. I am spreading my views to others. I am pointing out what I see and each of you who has received my thoughts does something also. Some of you change a little piece of your class. Some of you have changed huge parts of your class. Others have investigated Democratic schools. Some have muted me, blocked me, and bad mouthed me. I know all of this to be true. I have made an impact.

A few people have told me what I need to do. "You should quit!"

"You should work at a charter school or a democratic school," other people have said.

"You need to do what I am doing, and exactly as I am doing it," one person has told me while also harshly judging me for not taking her advice.

"You should come to peace within the system and do what you can within it," a close friend suggested.

Others desperately want to know what they should do. They want to do the right thing. They got into education because they like to serve people and suggesting that they are contributing to doing children a disservice creates great dissonance.

"Ok, they say in frustration," I get it!, but what should I do? What should we do?"

This question always stumps me. Until today. On my mountain bike ride.

Why do I need to tell them what to do? Why? There is no one right answer. Each of you do what you can do. Why do many of us just want to be told what to do? "Whats the right thing? Whats the best thing? Tell me. Please tell me."

No! I can't tell you, and you can't tell me. Because if I told you then I took your brain away. I took your unique contribution away.

You must find your own way, and I must find my own way. Good luck to us both... we need it.