Sunday, September 14, 2014

On blogging, boredom, and summer books

On Blogging, Boredom, and Summer Books

I decided to start this blog mostly as a way to reflect upon what I do as a teacher.  Plus, I like to write and share my opinions, though I'm a little out of practice on the former since college.  My uncle, my brother, my cousin, and even my 14 year old son are all published authors so I'm hoping good writing genes will carry me through.  

Hopefully anyone who might read this won't hold my lack of technical writing skills against me.  My writing is sure to have grammatical errors and typos, but hopefully the message comes through clearly anyways. 

As of this writing, I have been teaching fourth grade in my district for 20 years.  That fact kind of blows my mind because I don't feel like I've been at it that long.  I guess that's a good thing, too because it means that I'm not bored of teaching 9 and 10 year olds.  Boredom is one of my greatest fears you might say.  While I like some routine and predictability, I like to think I am a creative person at heart and the idea of doing the same thing day after day sounds torturous to me.  I couldn't imagine for example working in some factory and putting the same part on some car day over and over again.  I've worked a few very routine summer jobs like that back when I was in high school and college.  I would be counting the minutes until lunch or my break and I couldn't wait until it was time to leave for the day.  I could never imagine myself coming an hour early and staying an hour late to those job.  Yet, I do this every day at school.

Having something intellectually stimulating and challenging is important in a career, I believe.  And, if you are not challenged as a teacher, then something is definitely wrong. Each year is a new opportunity to improve at your craft and each set of students provides their own unique challenges.  I have friends and family who ask me about teaching who say things like, "Why do you spend so long at school?  Can't you just use your plans from last year?"  I smile and politely tell them, "No.  I wish it was that easy."

I think of teachers as similar in some ways to musicians or comedians or other artists that perform in front of a live audience.  Now granted, I never been a professional musician, comedian, or actor, but I have talked with many people who have performed in front of an audience and they have told me that there is something very dynamic about performing in front of a crowd.  The performer gives energy to the audience, and they in turn give back (or don't give back) energy that can affect the "show" as it were.  

In a similar way, teaching students has a "flow" that is really affected by the dynamics of the class.  For example, there are times when a class as a whole is very lethargic and I feel as if I need to will my energy and enthusiasm upon them for the topic we are studying.  Occasionally, that energy flow may come the other direction - where I am the one lacking energy and the students' interest, questions, and thoughts on the topic get me excited about what we are doing.

I guess this is one reason that I really fear very prescriptive approaches to teaching.  I have heard of programs that have come to some struggling schools in big cities where teachers are told exactly how many minutes to teach each subject, they are told the exact methods they are to teach that subject, and the exact words to say.  To me, this is a business model approach that does not work in a human learning environment.  It may work for Ford to study and copy the manufacturing methods of Toyota to become more efficient, productive, and safe.  But, to take a lesson that was used in a highly successful school by a highly successful teacher and copy it word for word and recreate it in another "failing" school does not guarantee success for those students.  (I'll save what we deem as "successful" teaching for another blogpost, I think.)

And yet, its happening in schools all over the country.  This summer I read Diane Ravitch's excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education and was floored but some of the ways cookie-cutter, business models are being applied to schools all across the country.  To summarize Ravitch's extremely thorough history and research on the topic, these approaches just didn't work very well. 

In fact, it could be argued that in most cases they were extremely detrimental to the schools and their communities.  There were stories of districts in which half of the teachers left or were fired in the first year if they wouldn't "get with the program."  In some schools 80% of principals were fired or left the district.  In these approaches, all classrooms would be furnished with items like a reading carpet, rocking chair, and a reading table and these would be expected to be used in the same way each day, at the same time, and using the same lesson plan in each classroom.

In my opinion, many of the political and business forces that are shaping education today are well intended, yet misguided.  Teachers sharing the best ideas from their teaching is a great way to improve education.  However, it has to be remembered that one size doesn't fit all.  If I start singing the words to U2's "With or Without You", that doesn't make me Bono.  I hope that there never comes a day where my school tells me what I need to say to my students, what rocking chair I need to sit in, and what reading rug my students need to sit on.  If that day ever does come, it will probably be my last.

Have an opinion on this you'd like to share on this topic?  Feel free to leave a comment below.

1 comment:

  1. I'll always say that teaching is an art form, and that's why no business model, or one-size-fits-all approach will ever work. Effective teachers know how to constantly change their tools to work with an unpredictable "medium".

    I never knew about your uncle's book
    4th Works