The World, it is a Changin’

Head on view of a Rotary Phone
Head on view of a Rotary Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to argue about the impact that technology and the internet have had on our society. “Revolutionized” is one word that springs to mind. That word may seem radical, but consider this: in order to make a phonecall, we used to have to turn a rotary dial with our fingers and wait for it to spin around with each and every single digit! Unbelievable! Imagine all that time we wasted standing there waiting for that dial to turn back around, when we could have been tweeting. . .

In recognition of this rapid and momentous change in our lives, there has been an increasing effort to bring the contemporary technologically driven world down into the bolted-down-desk backwaters of our schools. After all, our children are digital natives. I’m not quite sure what this term means, other than that our kids are consummate consumers and know how to touch a screen to download porn or a new game. But it seems to imply that if we don’t keep them entertained and attached to the drip feed of a lit screen, we may be losing oodles of minutes to ever constant brain stimulus.

Teachers, also, have been a-clamoring for access to laptops and netbooks and what not. Not simply because they can play games, but because their administrators keep haranguing them to input numbers into spreadsheets. The old gradebook just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore in today’s “data-driven” world. It’s much more efficient to crunch numbers on the computer — you can make charts and stuff, which helps principals out a lot because they like seeing things visualized (hint: use lots of color). These charts then can be foisted onto visitors to the building, along with printouts of the state standards, demonstrating how student growth is aligned to AYP targets. See, didn’t that sound good? Come on over here and look at this nice, colorful bulletin board!

Anyway, let me just say this: technology is cool. It’s going to revolutionize education. Everything is going to be personalized, differentiated, and individualized for each and every single learner. It’s going to be amazing! Wake me when we get there. . .

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Pushing the Walls Away

My reflection on how my most challenging students have also been my greatest teachers.

It’s the most challenging students that you carry with you long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. That student who threw a desk at you, the one who cursed you out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in your wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever you asked her to complete a task, that one who walked out the classroom throughout the day, the one so hungry for attention that you couldn’t get through an entire lesson, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon and made sure you never left the room during your prep period again, the one who couldn’t stop talking for more than one minute . . . These are the ones that keep us up at night, the ones that often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of them out loud makes tears spring to our eyes and our voices so thick we stop ourselves from even bringing them up in conversation, even to our loved ones.

Such students drive us nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept our authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves.

But it is these students that come back to me when I swap stories with other teachers. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity.

Children are constantly looking to the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate the constant bombardment of stress, anger, and anxiety, as well how to deal with conflicts with others. The sad thing is that we often are not ready to provide that guidance, whether due to competing demands on our attention, lack of professional therapeutic training, or simple lack of life and soul experience. Yes, I said ‘soul experience.’ This is that deep, dark place of grit that comes from overcoming life challenges that can not be faked and for a lack of which challenging children will call you out on within a moment in a classroom setting. If you can’t meet their challenge consistently, decisively, and with complete integrity, they will take you down into that wounded place of raw, bereft, acute despair within which they have had their formative experiences.

It takes a whole school to reach our most challenging students. It takes a staff willing to do whatever it takes to address that child’s needs, rather than abandoning them to a teacher already overwhelmed with the only slightly less immediate needs and demands of their other students. It takes a community that supports, nurtures, and cultivates emotional literacy. It takes a school that has the courage to acknowledge that for some students, the rules must be broken, and we can’t just punish our way into compliance, but rather must work carefully to cultivate warm relationships and a supportive, nurturing environment that slowly coaxes motivation from that student.

Though it’s hard to see it at the time, in the midst of all the negative conflicts and stress they put us through, we should cherish these challenging students. The students with exceptional learning needs. The students who have lived in shelters. The students abandoned first by their mothers and subsequently by a string of foster parents. The students who challenge us to love them, challenge us to care for them, challenge us to be the kind of educators that can believe in them no matter what — unconditionally — because that’s the kind of educators that they need.

Goin’ Crazy

The interior of the Francis M. Drexel School i...
Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.

I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.

Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.

Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part I

A system with high adaptive capacity exerts co...
Image via Wikipedia

In one of my recent posts, I pontificated in a rather abstract manner on the field of education, and advocated for the need for nurturing an increase in foundational systems of interconnectivity. I believe quite strongly in this concept, and I would like to begin exploring it in more practical and substantive terms in a series of blog posts, just as I once did on the issue of poverty (I, II, III, and IV). But first of all: what the hell do I even mean by foundational systems of interconnectivity?

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of a school as an ecosystem. You can’t disconnect or isolate any one component from the other without considering its relation to many other interrelated parts. For example, you can’t completely isolate a student in a classroom from the collective student body in that classroom, nor that classroom from the collective student body in the grade, nor school. You can’t completely isolate a student from their family, nor community, nor society. You can’t isolate a teacher from the professional collective of teachers and staff in the school, nor from the administration and its policies, nor from the state and federal funding and policies.

So in consideration of the school as an ecosystem, we must:

a) acknowledge interrelationships and connections when considering subgroups or individuals by:

  1. considering the school culture
  2. considering the community and culture of the student population that the school serves
  3. considering societal expectations and norms

If we can begin to analyse the components of what I outlined above, we then can begin exploring how we can better harmonize those considerations in order to best foster the conditions for a well-balanced school ecosystem.

In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of a school culture further.