Questions

What is today's American Dream?

Right now my eighth graders and I are studying the American literary movements as we work through 101 Great American PoemsLast week we started discussing Modernism and how part of that time period caused people to lose faith in the "American Dream." When I started teaching this a couple of years ago, I began stealing much of the curriculum from the textbooks I used with my juniors during student teaching: Holt's Elements of Literature, Fifth Course. As I was reflipping through it this year I came upon a question that really made me think: What is today's American Dream?

I've been trying to develop my students' abilities for sustained writing, and so we started the class with a ten-minute quick write on the prompt, and this time I wrote along with them. Afterwards we discussed it, and most of us agreed that today's American Dream is to be successful. As one student put it, there's a "scoreboard" that we're trying to put ourselves on. In America today, we want to make a name for ourselves.

We eventually began to break it down to consider what this looks like for their thirteen- and fourteen-year-old selves. One student commented that fulfilling the American dream for them involves attaining good grades, but we soon realized that good is no longer good enough. They feel like they need to have perfect grades. In the age of PowerSchool it's really easy to obsess over such things. And obsess over it they do.

But their obsession makes sense. They're currently in the midst of the high school admissions process. They're writing application essays and taking placement test courses. The pressure they feel in deciding a high school is greater than what I felt in choosing a college. Here in the Bay Area, high school admittance is cut-throat. You need to have good grades and be involved in extracurriculars and volunteer and be seemingly "perfect" in order to get in. And the world (both directly and indirectly) is telling them that going to a good high school will allow them to get great academic opportunities that will lead to getting into a great college. This college experience will give them a good career which will lead to a great life and retirement. They really think and feel this way! There's so much pressure! They desire that success.

And don't get me wrong, I have really high expectations for my students, especially this class. They have great ability, and I like to push them, but I wonder how far is too far.

Some days they're all worn out and glazed over after having stayed up late last night studying for a big test. They often obsess over meeting the right requirements instead of learning. They get frustrated in the ambiguous and the unknown. Life becomes way more about the journey than the destination. Every day I see their faces lined with stress and worry. Yes, I want them to achieve and succeed, but I also want them to enjoy the rest of their childhood. To relax and have fun.  To be silly. To understand that work can be fun and rewarding, not just stressful.

And yet, I know I get sucked into the same thing. I want to be successful. I want to make a name for myself. I want to be known. I love to work. But I can often become obsessive about it, trying to find my identity in it. My pride is ugly, and I'll go to great lengths to bolster it.

And so now I'm wondering, how do we balance it all? How do we strive to be successful and teach our kids to work hard without making it an obsession or unhealthy ideal?

How do we push boundaries without being a jerk?

I love Twitter because it's filled with a bunch of innovative people who really care about kids. There are a lot of amazing educators out there, pushing the status quo and challenging others (myself included) to think about why we teach the way we teach.

However, Twitter is also filled with a lot of jaded people. Since we're used to fighting for what we believe is the best for the kids, it can be difficult to remain a positive attitude when that fight is squelched by administrators, parents, or infrastructures. And I get that. I hate being told no, and I go crazy when people attack the things I know to be true. But I've also learned that there's a certain tact that needs to be used in our approach to finding change.

I first learned this lesson the summer after my senior year of college. I was working as the director of a camp program, and I took the DISC personality test. I know that a test can't tell you everything about yourself, but this test really did help me understand who I am in the working environment (which often comes off as a jerk). In fact, my report says that colleagues should "Keep at least three feet away from [me]" and avoid "unreliable sources." I'm known for valuing the task over the people and the logic over the feeling. This can be really helpful for getting work done, but I've really had to learn (and am still learning) to not trample people in the process. I've learned that sometimes people just want to feel heard. I've learned that although facts inspire me to act, they often bog others down. I've learned that I need to consider my audience when seeking change, just like I'd like others to do for me.

And so as I follow people on Twitter, I can't help but wonder how we can push the boundaries and not be a jerk about it. On the one hand, I think sometimes we can be too passive, thinking it's better to just keep the innovation inside our classrooms. This decreases the amount of pushback we get to our ideas, pushback that sadly, can often come with serious consequences. However, on the other hand, we can't be a jerk about it either. We need to consider our audiences and their needs and struggles and joys. At the deepest level, all of us are in education for the kids. There just isn't any other reason to be here. But in the midst of disagreements, we lose sight of this common vision, and it becomes an us vs. them mentality. We throw insults, cast blame, and focus on problems instead of solutions.

When I posted this proposed a blog series on Twitter about how to push the boundaries without being a jerk, I was meant with a variety of responses that continued my thinking. My former boss (@dmeest) asked if I was looking for pointers, which, since he has the same personality, is fair (and funny) of him to ask. Brad Wilson (@dreamambition) observed that "'Visionaries' lose credibility in [his] book real quick if they are being jerks." Isn't that the truth? We lose respect for others, but even more, it causes me to reflect on if I'm causing others to lose respect for me. I thrive on credibility, and I want to ensure that my voice remains true... and that people respect that truth.

Then Michelle Cassidy (@michellemcass) chimed in, saying, "I'm a firm believer in modeling 4 kids- it's not ok to bully, even from a pedestal." Ouch. So right. Her response reminded me that the way I expect ed tech leaders (with or without an official title) to act is what I'm trying to teach my students every single day. For example, I often hear my students whining about the amount of time they have to spend doing homework (yes, this is another issue all in itself). In the midst of their whining I ask them, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" Yeah, you can whine to me, but you're not doing much homework in my class. And even if it was my class, do you think whining really makes me evaluate my practice? No! It just makes me cranky. I'm trying to teach them to approach a teacher calmly and explain their own feelings instead of attacking the task. I'm encouraging them to explain the amount of time they're spending on a task and ask for strategies to decrease that time. Because the fact is, none of the teachers at my school want our students to do homework all night. We want students who have other passions and pursue them boldly. But sitting and whining about the situation solves no problems.

So I guess my point is really a question: how can we effectively push the boundaries of our profession while continuing to model the citizens we hope our students will become? What does this look like in the teachers' lounge and on Twitter? How do we speak at happy hour and in out principal's office? How can we be agents of change without just being a jerk? I'd love to hear some more responses via Twitter or your blog or the comments about strategies that help you find this balance.

Why Do Words in Math Class Make Kids Cry?

As I've said before, I'm teaching math for the first time this year. It kind of feels like an interesting psychology experiment to me because I now see these five kids in the language arts and in the math classroom. It's interesting how different people excel in and enjoy different topics.

Our school does Saxxon math, which is a cyclical curriculum. Basically, every day is a short lesson, and the problem set has a few of those problems but also problems from previous lessons. There are parts of that that I like and parts of it that I hate. A problem set is thirty problems, and if you use the whole class period for activities to help understand the homework, that's a lot of homework for your students.

I've been working on finding interesting math tasks to accompany the concepts that we're studying. I'm forever indebted to John Stevens for showing me Robert Kaplinksy's search engine for this reason.

And you know what I've noticed? Kids freak out when there are words involved in their math. In my quest to make math applicable to the real world, we've been doing a lot of Yummy Math's lessons, which explore math in the context of the world. Each lesson has a bunch of words that explain the context for the math. As someone who teaches English, I love this because it teaches students about literacy and the world around them. My students perform well in language arts, but when they see words in their math class, they freak out. They sometimes even shut down. And I can't help but wonder why.

Yes, sometimes the lessons utilize concepts that they've never learn, but it's a class of five students, and I sit there and talk through it with them. I know that if they just slow it down and think through and process the question it will come to them. It won't be easy, but it will come.

But instead my students are groaning that their "brains hurt" (a feeling that I personally love). And so I'm starting to believe that we're doing students a disservice by teaching math out of context. That we're teaching a step-by-step process that's memorized instead of a way of thinking and problem-solving. And yes, there are things to be memorized, but I think it's more important that my students can use their brains without negative pain or tears than it is for them to memorize the quadratic equation.

But honestly, I have less than two months of math teaching experience, and I'm curious about your thoughts. This probably makes me align with the Common Core or something, but I'm way less concerned about that than I am concerned about preparing my students to be active world-changers who solve the multitude of problems our world faces.