Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Learning to Listen

Over Winter Break, I couldn’t stop thinking about my classes. First, the sophomores continue to stress me out as I doggedly look for ways to engage them in something, anything, other than instant gratification (for the love of God—can they do anything but play games, watch movies, and/or hit each others butt/crotches. Seriously, what is that?!). I didn’t have any epiphanies for them, so for now we’re tackling Night. It’s required for 10th grade, and it’s the first sustained piece I’m trying. It’s…going…not horribly.

(On a side note, it’s amazing when, as a prolific and voracious reader, you view pieces through a non-reader’s eyes. Suddenly you realize just how slow the first chapter of Night is. Or, you think, “Man, some of To Kill a Mockingbird is excruciatingly detailed.” It also makes me again wonder why we do so much classical literature, which was written for ADULTS, with teens. No wonder they hate to read.)

Back on topic: in this post, I want to focus on the odd things I did dream up for my AP students. These students are smart, but they were seriously ill equipped for AP Lang & Comp. At least ¾ of them had never written a research paper, which we all know they will do in college. They were adept at skating by and cheating, but weren’t prepared for a class where wrote (The horror!) and read (The humanity!) and they actually had to use their brains (I’m evil!). I do still have a handful that will never break a sweat if they don’t have to, but the rest have risen to every challenge I’ve presented and are blossoming as they realize their own competence.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to sacrifice some of the literature (I continue to pare down every year) and work in more “real world” skills: listening, note taking, and analysis of mediums other than literature. Last week we tackled notes and listening. I decided I was sick of them taking forever to take notes (even on the computer). Below are the resources I’ve used so far and the short lessons/directions I wrote.

Monday: No School/PD Day (Ugh. The Circle of Hell Dante forgot about.)

Tuesday: After explaining I’m not a resolution person, but one who engages in self-reflection…a lot, I asked students a series of self-reflection questions. It always amazing me how honest most students are when asked to reflect. We finished the class by discussing grades vs. learning. I challenged them to NOT look at their grade in my class for the next month. I also dared them to focus on the learning rather than the arbitrary number/letter. If they focus on learning, the rest should fall into line. I told them we would need to trust each other: I would need to trust them to do their best and strive for excellence, and they would need to trust me to “worry” about their grades. We shall see how this goes.

Wednesday: (took about 40ish minutes of a 50-minute period)
1. Asked students to get a piece of paper and something to write with.

2. This video quickly goes over 5 different methods of note-taking. The guy uses Street Fighter…I don’t know…but it was quick and useful:

Students wrote down 2-3 methods they thought they could/would actually use.

3. Next, we did this 7 minute video on the Cornell system for more depth (and to show students how to combine methods):

4. We briefly discussed paper vs. computer because we are 1:1, and they always choose computer. Then I showed this:

5. Next, on the same paper, I told them to choose one of the methods and get ready to take notes over this TED Talk:

6. We briefly discussed what stood out to them and the 5 ways to improve listening.

7. Last, I told them to get comfortable (heads on desks/eyes closed/sitting or laying on the floor/whatever). I played about 4 minutes from two different classical pieces (as time allowed). After the first piece, we discussed what different elements we heard. Just so you know, I played “The Tell-Tale Heart” from The Shadow of the Raven by Nox Arcana and “Lullaby for my Favorite Insomniac” by the Ahn Trio. Both pieces use more than instruments. 

Thursday: (pretty much all 50 minutes)
(I was absent for a couple classes, so the directions were very detailed. Ha!)

Overall the students loved this and want to do it again. Some of us decided we want to binge on TED Talks this summer.

Friday: (probably all 50 minutes)
I didn’t have time, but in the future I’ll start the class by asking them to try to summarize the TED Talks they listened to the day before. I’ll probably have them do this on sticky notes—to see if they actually retained anything. Then we’ll do this:

This actually was fun. I made them put up cell phones. We went to our library for more space. I let students choose partners and sit across from each other, with some space between groups.

I gave them paper for the summarization part. I also chose to go over directions orally (to practice listening) and read the questions out loud. The times are rough; mostly I tried to listen to the rise and crescendo in conversation. When I heard it tapering off, I called “time.”

I warned them we will probably do something like this again, but next time they will partner with someone they don’t know as well.

Overall, this was a productive week. I’ve already noticed a difference with their note taking. As for the listening…we will keep working with that….

Monday, January 4, 2016

Hope/Despair Challenge

Recently The Atlantic posted an article entitled “Will America Ever Fix Its Schools?” It focuses on education experts’ reasons for hope and despair as we move into the new year. Rob Miller, whom I greatly respect, then issued a challenge and wrote the perfect introduction to that challenge.

As I tend toward practical realism, which some interpret as pessimism, I’ll do my best with the “hope” section. Unfortunately, after the last couple of years as I strive to become even more socially conscious (and active) and deal with lupus (which is kicking my butt since the weather keeps changing), my heart and soul feel incredibly burdened. So, I apologize ahead of time, but maybe this will act cathartically for me.  

I’ve already written a couple blogs about my heart for equity, especially in schools (“Stop Pretending” challenge and “My Epiphany”). I will attempt to not repeat myself, but maybe repetition is what America needs. That constant drip…drip…drip…of the leaky faucet until we actually get out of our damn metaphorical beds and fix our issues.

Soooo, I despair we will ever become a nation where everyone is treated as equal. Hell, I despair we will ever be a nation where everyone is seen and treated as human beings. Sadly, this carries into our classrooms and is overtly and covertly taught to our children. We are a nation where teachers can dress up as stereotypes (an example here and here) with little-to-no regard for their students’ feelings. We justify these incidents as harmless jokes or all in good fun. When you lack respect for your students and their families, you think their culture and ideas are fodder for jokes. When you cannot see the basic humanity of your students and their families, you should stay as far away from any type of education as you can. Please, just stop perpetuating your idiocy and bigotry. Stay out of the way of those of us actually trying to improve society and educate ALL children. Even better, why not just move to Antarctica? I’m okay with you being a bigot there.

I despair America even wants to bring equity to schools. I’ve stated it before, but education opens minds and makes students question (if it’s done right). Educated citizens are dangerous citizens because they critically examine their world, find flaws, and search for solutions.

Critical citizens would see
1. our disappearing middle class, the disparity in classes, the minority of obscenely wealthy becoming stupidly rich by using loop-holes and buying politicians. (Seriously, how much money does one person really need? How many cars and square feet of house does one need?)
2. racism, sexism, classism, and every type of “ism” prevalent, nay, built into the foundation of our society. Our country was built on the subjugation of others—on their blood, sweat, tears, bodies, humanity. Learn your history, people. Maybe then we can stop repeating those gruesome mistakes and start to change for the better.   
3. all this talk of failing schools and higher standards and testing and funding and privatization and technology and STEM and learning styles and college costs and PISA scores on and on…they’re all distractions, red herrings to divert and splinter us from fighting the true enemies of systemic ignorance and bigotry. If we SAW and CARED about every single student, we would make education a priority in America.

If we truly cared, we would make sure each student had highly qualified teachers in each classroom in each school. Teachers who were prepared and excited to meet the needs of each student. We would provide each student with technology. We wouldn’t need standards because we would want every single child to be educated and to reach his/her potential. We would encourage playing and creativity and art and music. We wouldn’t focus on testing because we would finally realize all standardized tests (including the stupid ACT/SAT/AP tests) are written for wealthy white children. We wouldn’t worry about competing with other countries on the asinine PISA because we would sleep soundly knowing we were doing right by each child. We would make sure each of our babies was fed, clothed, sheltered, nurtured, loved.

With all this “despair,” why bother even getting up each morning? I can tell you why in two words: my students. I currently teach 10th traditional and 11th grade AP English. Each day, the alarm goes off about 6:00 am, and while I am NOT a morning person, I drag myself out of bed because of the shining moments in my teaching. 

From the beginning of my teaching career, I have fought ignorance and apathy. In general, students have not been taught to care about and actively work toward their education (they’ve been trained to focus on grades). But over the years, I have seen students discover a hunger for knowledge. Students who realize education doesn’t just happen in a classroom. Students whose minds are opened to new ideas and possibilities. Students who come to understand they can entertain those ideas without actually accepting them. Students who learn to question everything, even me. I love watching that spark ignite, catch, and begin to smolder. If I’m lucky (usually the years I looped), I get to see those embers fan into a flame…and grow and spread.

Those students give me hope because they learn to look at the status quo, and their already rebellious natures (sometimes rebellion is good), make them balk at it. I cannot adequately express my joy in teaching them and pushing them. They truly are the future, which makes me more optimistic. Sometimes they can make me forget my fear or worry about tomorrow, for I glimpse tomorrow in each of their faces; I hear tomorrow in their voices and answers; I see tomorrow in their work. 
When you ask me what gives me hope for 2016, I can confidently answer with two words: my students. Everyday, they prove my trust and faith in them. I know they may not see the future in themselves, but, again, I do not worry. With time, they will see what I see in and know about them.

As for the rest of the world outside my classroom, my hope is we will finally wake up, look at ourselves in the mirror, stop justifying our sins, and start acknowledging the innate humanity in every person. I don’t want to see any more people become hashtags.