Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Slowing Down

For the past several years, I have sometimes felt like Indiana Jones just a few feet in front of the damn giant boulder.

This is not entirely the result of various education reforms. We've been through some changes locally, including but limited to some schedule changing that has resulted in slightly shorter periods, and some changes in staffing that have led to slightly larger classes.

But of course like many other schools, we are being trickled down upon by the dripping ooze of school reform. We have lots of additional paper-- well, computer work that is meant to show how we're aligning our instruction to the standards (spoiler alert-- mostly by completing computerized paperwork). We spend time worrying about the numbers and part of my week is now set aside for sitting and fretting over various slabs of data. And when you add up all the days I lose to testing, or pre-testing, or practice testing, it all adds up to days and weeks of school during which I don't get to actually teach.

Meanwhile, the mountain of material that I feel I should be getting through looks more and more like, well, like two mountains, piled on top of each other and sitting on top of a third mountain that has been smushed into the ground so far that I'll have to dig it all out before I can deal with it. And so there is a voice yammering away in my ear, strained and urgent, reminding me that I only have X days left and if I don't hammer through this stuff today, and quickly, I'll never get to the other material which I really need to get to because these students are less than two years away from going out into a world that will demand every possible skill set from them and oh my good lord in heaven how am I ever going to get anything done if they want to talk about stuff and holy crap the boulder is right on my heels-----

It has become almost routine for me. Maybe it happens when I'm home unwinding with family and vacation, or maybe it happens when I suddenly see what I'm doing and realize I am losing the thread. But either way, I catch myself, I stop, I slow down. I breathe.

Today I used an exercise that I absolutely do not recommend for anyone. I started my forty minute classes with twenty minutes of material.

My solution is not the obvious one; I'm not allowed (by me) to fill up a class period with "study hall." The taxpayers pay me perfectly good money to work with students. So I have to find those other twenty minutes in the moment, in my students' concerns, in whatever jumps up and demands attention. I do stack the deck in my favor-- I don't try this on a day where, for instance, the lesson is about participial phrases. Today I wanted to talk to my students about what skills they think they'll need for adulting that they think the school hasn't, or may never, provide. And because I don't have enough "teaching" to fill the period, I have to shut up and let discussion flow. Maybe I listen. Maybe I prime the pump. Maybe I'll tell a personal story (my pedagogical justification being that modeling vulnerability in a safe place is important, as is their seeing that I'm a human). I can't plan this, not for every single second. I have to slow down and listen and watch and be there.

I confess that I used to work like this more often, and I'm not proud of doing it less. If I'm not careful, instead of a safe place where everyone can be heard and relationships are built, my classroom can become a racquetball court with one of those tennis ball cannons sitting in a corner firing off a ball every ten seconds. But we change in our practice-- when I began teaching, I had to put all my effort into creating energy, pushing it out, pumping it out, being, as my co-op said, punchy-quick. I was a quieter, more guarded person then. Now, in a classroom, I have to be sure to breathe, to lay back, to listen.

It's important to remember that while we are there to do the work, our conception of the work has to include the students as actors, as co-conspirators, as participants with agency. One of the most corrosive aspects of the modern reform movement is the conception of education as something that is done to students, who are supposed to sit there passively while we perform our magic tricks and pull numbers out of them like so many standardized rabbits out of identical hats. We can not, must not reach the point where we are so focused on getting away from that giant boulder that we trample right over the students in front of us.

The students are more important than the numbers. They are more important than the test results, more important than the lesson plans, more important even than the personal goals we set to "cover" exactly This Much material by the end of our days with them. The students are not there to serve us; we are there to serve them. Sometimes you just have to take a moment to get the thread back. Slow down.The boulder is just a fake, a movie prop, and you are tougher than it is.


  1. Hopefully Jill Stein and George Clooney will see your merchandise, read your blog, figure out that teachers need time to slow down and do real time teaching, not industrial-designed instruction geared towards test taking. Let's assume that they already know that testing is out of control. So maybe they will decide that their fund raising talents could be put to use not just for political campaigns, but also for children in public schools, especially those in dire straits. As I have stated before, I cannot figure out why Oprah, whose fame took root and blossomed in Chicago, took her billions elsewhere, including starting a private school for girls in Africa. Of course, her private school is a wonderful thing but why not support public schools in Chicago?

    How about a donation (endowment) to rebuild a school, or provide support staff in classrooms, etc? Why is that such a ridiculous idea? Is it assumed that only the government should be putting money into public education? Is there a law preventing donations like this? If not, are these same people (with means) who advocate change and support for the most vulnerable afraid that their money would just go to waste in the hands of city governments? Are they afraid that donating to a school here and there isn't going to treat the whole problem, so why bother?

    It seems that agendas loom large. If people with means are horrified with the apparent new Secretary of Education, is that a reason to walk away? In fact, doesn't it increase motivation to support public education, considering the concerns that resources will be further depleted? If a beggar comes to me on the street, do I say, "Well, there are agencies to give him support" or do I figure out what I have and give what I can in that moment? It really does boil down to that.

    If government is supposed to get it right but doesn't, can't public citizens step up and fill that gap? Is that really so outrageous? I don't think I can stomach more news about $10K, $25K, $200K tickets to sit at a table with a politician in order to raise money for a campaign, while the speeches at the same event are focused on the urgent need to support the vulnerable.

    If these same people could at least help with the basics, maybe more teachers would have the time, the space, the support to spend time in the discussion, dialogue and simple human interaction which is at the heart of true learning. What a testimony it would be to young people, especially those most crushed by the stress of poverty. What a legitimate means of support it would be. What a useful way to spend money. What a powerful way to validate children. Meet their needs.

    There are people of means who can contribute and ease the burdens. The real and crucial question is, what is stopping them from doing it? If the answer is, "It's not my job", then....well, I don't know what to say.

    1. That's why it works better to have more (fair) taxes on rich people to do what needs to be done, because they evidently can't or won't help effectively on their own.

      Of course, that's assuming we have a government of public servants responsive to what citizens need and want, instead of full of greedy, corrupt politicians being paid bribes to protect the corporate mafia.

    2. Yes. Chicago is full of progressives and rich people. I am not sure why Rahm cannot get things in order. Not sure why Oprah bailed. Not sure why 50 years of activism have resulted in worse conditions. Do we think Obama will head back to Chi-town and do some grassroots campaigning for the children of Chicago? I won't hold my breath.

  2. A little Googling reveals Oprah has donated millions to charter schools. She also donated to private schools around the world as well as to scholarship organizations. I didn't see anything about public schools. I guess it is illegal. Or, people only want to donate where they can call the shots, like Gates.