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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My wonderful CFG challenged each of us to write our professional creed/belief statement, so this is what I wrote:

My Bottom Lines

Teachers and students deserve respect.
“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

To work from respect means that my stance is grounded in positive assumptions and that my mission isn’t about fixing anyone. (I’m not a handyman nor do I want to be.) Respect means that I trust that teachers and students are capable, competent, and well intentioned. And how does that translate into practice?
  •      Relationships underpin the risky, challenging work that we do as educators. To the best of my ability, I need to know the teachers, the administrators, and the students.
  •      Instead of rushing right into the work, I need to slow down and say hello, check in, and see how life is.
  •      Agendas need to be built so that all voices are a part of the conversation right at the start.
  •       Kids have stories, and so do their teachers. It’s those stories that shape who they are, and it’s my obligation to seek out those stories.
  •      Peter Johnston’s caution must be kept in mind: “there are hidden costs in telling people things. If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence…”
    Substitute teacher with student and a good share of my work is about asking, listening, probing, and paraphrasing, and then, perhaps, consulting.

All voices, including the dissenting voice, matter. Instead of labeling someone a resister, I owe it to her tobe disturbed, to listen, and to come to understand, but with no obligation to agree. When students say that work is stupid, my job isn’t to correct that perception but to understand if the level of difficulty is out of reach or if something else is at play. When teachers say that students can’t write a counterclaim, my job isn’t to say “yes but.” Instead, my job is to figure out if it’s really about belief in students or doubt about a teacher’s capacity or simply a question about how to do the work.

Students and their teachers deserve to do work that matters. Time is the nemesis of all in education, so it cannot be squandered. The work done within schools must be purposeful, meaningful, and relevant. There’s no reason that students can’t write for authentic audiences, solve problems that reside in the world, or contribute to our society. Likewise, there’s no reason for teachers to collect data that has nothing to do with their instruction but everything to do with a misguided policy or to complete other tasks that take them away from doing the work of planning, teaching, and checking on students’ understanding.

Vision determines future steps. As students grow, they need a vision of what’s possible: to see people like them doing important work, to study models of work that can serve as mentors, and be inspired by people who have achieved despite the odds. Likewise, teachers need a vision of classrooms and schools where students are highly engaged regardless of their home situations. Schools/districts/policy makers need a vision of schools where students thrive regardless of their past. Vision creates possibilities and generates hope.

Engagement is the trump card. Even before standards, before assessments, and before strategies, teachers must plan for student engagement. Thinking about whether the work requires attention, persistence, and commitment is critical. Holding the tenets of Pink and others of autonomy, mastery,
purpose, and belonging is critical. Likewise, teachers need to be engaged in the work that they do. They need to know that their work matters and that it’s work that they can and must do.

  • What does this look like in terms of practice?
  •  Lessons live within a context: a unit of study, a year’s curriculum, a life.
  • Students need to be the workers, the thinkers, the do-ers, and teachers need to be the ones planning for these students at this time.
  • Teachers can create the conditions that nurture engagement (the 6 Cs).
  • Choice, choice, choice.

--- Stevi, December 2015

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Power of Ideas

"Those things you learn without joy, you will forget easily." -- Finnish proverb

When I first started attending NCTE, I stalked the footnotes. I made sure I was up early to claim a front row seat to listen to Nancie Atwell, hoping she’d help me figure out that one part of my workshop that was still rough. I pushed through the crowds to listen to Donald Murray, yearning for that one nugget that would move those reluctant writers. I searched for the specific activity, the practical idea, the thing to do on December 1. I was in search of the tip and trick, the cool activity that would hook my kids.

Times have changed. Now I’m not stalking the footnotes in search of the practical; I’m no longer pushing through crowds to get that last handout.  Yes, I still get up early to listen to the keynoters and make my way through the crowds to listen to Tom Newkirk or Jeff Wilhelm or Vicki Vinton. But the aura surrounding the famous has faded, and I don’t gasp when I see Lucy Calkins. Now I’m stalking for a different purpose: someone who will provoke me, nudge my thinking, make me think in new ways. Now I want to stalk the idea. It’s the idea that lures me back each year to NCTE, ideas swirling around the heads of those most prominent in our field, ideas that are about to – or should be about to – catch on fire, ideas that like the wind force the skyscape of my mind to be a bit brighter, look a little different.

And what were the ideas that most grabbed me this year?

Bring on the joy and the pleasure
No, no one said it exactly like this, but joy was in the air. When Ellin Keene talked about engagement, she was talking about joy. Engagement, Ellin argued, is “born of  emotional response to ideas.” Isn’t that joyfulness? When Jeff Wilhelm challenged us to reflect on whether or not “we would do the crap that we assign students,” he urged us to think about the role of pleasure. Why wouldn’t we think about pleasure as we nurture our readers, our students? Why wouldn’t we remember that pleasure exists in the world of play, work, the intellect, and the social? And when Penny Kittle advocated for students selecting their own books 75% of the time, she too was talking about joy and pleasure. What if, she asked, students didn’t fake read? What if it were otherwise? After all, if our kids don’t love reading, they’re not going to do it when we leave the room.

Oh, yeah, bring on that joy! Invite pleasure into the classroom!

Eliminate the great divide
Tom Newkirk warned us that we are plagued by a category problem. Yep, it’s CCSS’s three categories of writing:  narrative, information, and argument. Good writing, he reminded us, crosses that great divide and blurs the lines between categories. All writing that we want to read is told by a narrator that we want to follow and that kind of writing leads us through surprise after surprise. Yes, the writing might convey information, but it’s the story that carries the day.

Linda Hoyt and Seymour Simon disabused us of the notion that good nonfiction writing is devoid of voice and style. Instead beautifully crafted sentences belong to the both the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. The beauty and power of a well-crafted sentence ushers us into the factual world of the gorillas and nudges us into the fiction of Joseph Conrad.

And, by the way, how is it that we have the categories of fiction and non-fiction? Doesn’t fiction contain truth, and doesn’t non-fiction carry us away through the story?  Perhaps that’s another divide that we need to close.

Get curious
Sessions on inquiry filled the conference docket, and Steph Harvey, Smokey Daniels, and Sara 
Ahmed  did a great job getting us curious. Steph Harvey reminded us of Sir Ken Robinson's statement:  Curiosity is the engine that drives achievement. Inquiry doesn't just lead to a cool project at the end of a unit; instead, it's how we should live our lives. To illustrate the importance of teachers living a curious life, Sara Ahmed showed us images of Syrian ruins in the desert and of beautiful Syrian children, images not often seen in popular media. Smokey nudged us to develop an inquiry question that emerged from studying those provocative images. For about 10 minutes 100 educators or more engaged in inquiry, and when Smokey and Sara tried to call us back, a good share of us tried to ignore them so that we could continue exploring. Inquiry is addicting.

Carol Jago's message at CEL dovetailed Smokey's and Sara's work with visual images and inquiry. After showing us a few images from Gordon Park's A Harlem Argument, she invited us to talk about how those stunning images build a visual argument.  Our job was to figure out that argument and determine who the argument was for. After showing us beautiful and provocative paintings by  Kehinde Wiley, she juxtaposed  Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”  and invited us to write. Those images promoted curiosity and heightened our response to the literature she had paired with them.

Even though I was ready to head home after the conference -- already I had been away for over a week and a half, I left refreshed and so glad that I had stalked the idea makers. The skyscape of my mind had altered. Already I’m planning for next year, curious about what joy will look like in 2016 and what ideas will dominate.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Matter of Beliefs

Charlie was never a stellar student, so I'm not kidding myself even as I get angry. I know he didn't always do his work, and I know that he would smile and nod in acquiescence and then walk about and do nothing.

To his teachers he was lazy, not motivated, and "if only…"

His early teen years weren't good ones -- school hadn't been a strong suit, and he was having too  much fun with kids who were at the edge of school. Then came the night his mom rushed his dad to the hospital. A few days later after the swelling of his dad's brain had returned closer to normal, his dad underwent the knife. For most of that week  Charlie's days were spent in the hospital, waiting for the diagnosis.

Brain cancer.

Life expectancy -- not known but not good.

And when he returned to school, his science teacher said no to turning his work in late.

You've got to be more responsible, she told him.

Lazy is what she believed.

He needs to learn a lesson about responsibility, she believed.

And then there's Marie.

Her mom was Japanese-American, her dad Mexican-American. Through her first few years of school, she carried her dad's last name. After her parent's divorce, she carried her mom's last name. While Mexican-American, her teachers  shook their heads in dismay at her struggles with math, but when she became Japanese-American, her teacher insisted that she visit him after school for tutoring.

Your people are good at math, and we must catch you up, he told her.

Asians are great at math but those from the southern hemisphere aren't, he believed.

Beliefs that teachers hold serve as roadmaps, as beacons of light, guiding a teacher's interpretation of events and subsequent  actions . Those beliefs determine the words that come out of our mouths and the instructional moves that we make. And the potential collateral damage: the Charlies of the world and the Latino Maries.

We owe it to our kids -all of our kids --  to take stock of our beliefs, to reflect on what is driving us and to ask ourselves: what if it were otherwise? What if…?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why I’m not retiring…. not just yet

How many years ago was it? Perhaps too many to recall, but I can still remember him and his stories. Steve was a little scruffy ninth grader who sat in the back of the room at old Merritt Hutton High School, a guy in need of a hair cut and a new pair of jeans.

For the month of September, he slouched down in his desk and glared. In October he slowly warmed up. In November he started submitting work. Instead of “forgetting” his homework, he hesitantly passed it forward. Each piece of paper was as scruffy as he was: crinkled, pencil smears here and there, evidence of his breakfast on one corner.

In December, I noted the pattern: the essay on Charles Manson, the free write on the mysterious disappearance of a neighbor boy, the fictional murder of a neighbor. Death hummed through each of his pieces.

I don’t recall how many he submitted or how many I read, but enough to spot a pattern.

And worry.

In January I acted. After showing his short story of the death of a neighbor, I went to see Jerry, the counselor.

When Steve returned to class after meeting with Jerry, he wouldn’t look at me. And he wouldn’t reclaim his desk. He grabbed his books, dumped his notebook on the floor, and stormed out of the room, uttering “bitch” under his breath.

And that was the last time I saw Steve.

Hey, Steve, I’m still at it because of you. I owe you one, bud, and I don’t want teachers to shut students down like I did you.

Steve was long ago at the start of my profession, but Marty was on the other side of my career. While walking through the university commons on the way to teach my Methods class, I heard my name. “Quate? Ms. Quate, is that you?” Marty beamed when I stopped. “I’ve been looking for you. Someone told me that you were teaching at UCD and I wanted to thank you. You got me writing. Remember when we…” and for the next few minutes, I listened and laughed as he talked about memories of our tenth grade class, his stories jogging long buried memories. And then we both realized we were about to be late for class.

“Thank you, Ms. Quate,”  and he hurried off to class.

And, thank you, Marty, you too are why I’m still hanging in there.

Connor was never a student of mine, but a young teen who I knew well. I watched him cope with his father’s two year battle with brain cancer, each day taking a toll on Connor, each day moving him further away from caring about quadratic equations or the separation of church and state. Connor watched  his father lose his hair but not his sense of humor, and then two years later the humor was gone as well as his ability to walk, keep up his business books, or eat dinner with the family. And Connor no longer cared about the impact of carbon emissions or the symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird.

And no one at school knew of his loss. Walking through the halls like a ghost, Connor was enveloped in his pain, invisible to his teachers, his classmates, his counselors.

“I feel like a ghost.”

And, Connor, you’re another reason why I’m hanging in here. No one should be that unseen person who floats through the halls. Everyone needs to be seen, to be known.

I often joke that  I’ll retire when I have “it” all figured out, but the truth is that as long as I have the energy and the courage, I’ll hang in to make my retributions, to celebrate successes, and to honor those students who fade into the background, faceless yet in need of adults who care.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A "Do Over" Moment (with Thanks to Alisa)

Probably all teachers have those "do over" moments, those times when we wish we could roll back the clock and do that lesson completely over.

One of my many "do over" moments was when I was early in  learning about writers workshop. I knew going public was important and so was getting feedback, so I circled my students up and naively asked who wanted to share a piece they had been working on.

It was so long ago that I don't remember her name, but I do remember that she was rather shy and had long black hair. "I have a poem I'd like to share."

And so with a blush she read it, and we gave her feedback. Rather, I gave her feedback. The rest of the students listened. Of course, I intended my feedback to be gentle and supportive and loving and would grow her as a poet.

I was wrong.

Her mother called during lunch. "Why did you tear my daughter's poem to shreds in front of the whole class? She's in tears and doesn't want to come back to your class."

Speechless doesn't describe my reaction. Stunned doesn't come close. Maybe mortified and embarrassed and guilt-ridden about what I had done to my student.

Had I spent time in Alisa Wills-Keely's class I might have known better. I might have learned how going for the good in what students do pays back big bucks and doesn't leave a student in tears.

Today I saw Alisa pull strong work from her students, display it on the doc camera, and concretely name what the students did well. I saw Alisa compliment a student by saying, "You nailed it, girl, you named the claim and got that evidence. Look at how you've grown since January." I heard Alisa tell a student that she needed to give a  mini-lesson on insights she had that would serve the class well. Not once did I hear Alisa publicly name and shame a student.

And that's what I did. I named and shamed my young poet.

With the best of intentions.

But they weren't good enough.

Alisa knows that students will do more of what they do well when it's noticed and named. She knows that students shy away from public display of errors but are attracted to public display of strengths. She knows that the growth mindset comes into play when students see what is possible, not what is wrong.

Yet Alisa doesn't shy away from pointing out needs. That's what conferences are for: those private moments when she kneels next to the student, listens hard to what he's saying, and then adds a teaching point to move him forward. But publicly she bathes him in specific, authentic praise that becomes a model for all to emulate.

Oh, yeah, if I could it over, I would. I would have provided my young poet with more models. I would have shown her and the other students how I wrestled with images in a poem, agonized over line breaks, and experimented with white space. I'd show them attempts that didn't work and ones that eventually worked. I would have knelt down beside them and listened harder long before I offered a suggestion or made that cogent teaching point. And I would have waited till they had poems to celebrate. That's when we would have gone public.

If only there were "do overs."