Sunday, February 15, 2009

It is wicked awesome when it works

Teacher Musings:
Its February break time and I'm south for the winter. Visiting my parents is always enjoyable because the live somewhere so different from Boston (and its so much warmer!!). It is also nice to be somewhere else with a different routine because it allows me to step back and reflect on my life and work. This is an especially opportune time for me because its the point of the year where all the work I've done so far starts to work - or not. I had a rough couple of weeks these past weeks with issues at work not related to my classroom. The stress of MCAS and massive changes at my school started to really take its toll. But what saved me is what always saved me - my students. In this case I experienced something that I have never really experienced before, even though I have been teaching for five years. I have been trying all sorts of different things with my students this year in terms of analytical writing. I have backed off of writing-graphic-organizers except for students who really need them, and I have spent way, way more time getting students to ask and answer their own analytical questions. I spent a week pushing them to read, re-read and really question the various meanings of various poems, even when they told me "I loved poetry before, but now you've killed it!" (true quote). I was a rewarded slightly when several students, in their weekly reflection, shared the fact that they felt they were learning how to really read poetry "deeply" for themselves. Yet the real reward was when they turned in their first 1-2 page poem analysis in first draft form. I had tried so many different things with this assignment. I had new ways to teach how to read a poem. I had a new way of running writer's workshop. I had a new way of conferencing with students. And the result of these in some form was some of the strongest independent analytical writing I have every done. Students who worked on their papers when they were supposed to and did all the assignments leading up to it (which of course wasn't everyone) really analyzed the poem they read with their own thoughts. Even students who struggled to wrote two of the body paragraphs and got a lot of help from me were able to synthesize their ideas about the authors' message and the time period the author lived in in interesting and insightful ways. What I loved about this, and what I saw for the first time in my teaching is that my incredibly smart and interesting students were able to translate their smart and interesting thoughts into their writing!! They weren't just filling in the blanks in a graphic organizer, they were really thinking!! Sure, not all their sentences were perfect grammatically, but when I read the essays I saw ideas develop and change and evolve. This is no small feat, as any writer knows. And when I saw my students do this, it was amazing, exciting and uplifting in ways that words can't capture. And it was why I struggle to find better ways of of doing things and fight through the cacophony of student voices that complain about thinking too hard - because it is wicked awesome when it works!

Yummy Stuff
So, again, it was a crazy week, so I didn't do much cooking. Thank goodness for Gary!! On Sunday we decided to make a huge pot of jambalaya to last as lunches during the week. However, we have been on the hunt for a good vegan sausage and it has been a struggle. So, last weekend, we made our own! So, we used the recipe from everydaydish for vegan italian sausage. It came out great!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Develop me!

Teacher musings:
I've been meaning to write this post for a week and a half now. It was prompted by a comment by one of my colleagues in reference to a professional development day at my school. We were discussing the usefulness of the presentations in our department and she said "I feel like I've been developed professionally!" I laughed, but I got what she was saying. I also felt that, for once, I had been part of a professional development opportunity where I really learned something of value about how to help my students learn.

Now, I have always been of the opinion that if I could find five minutes of value in a 90 minute PD presentation it was a win. I don't hold a lot of faith in people who tell me how to do my job, but who have never been a teacher. I am slightly more tolerant of people who have been teachers, but I still get tired of being preached to. But what I love most of all is time to talk and plan with other teachers. As a literacy coach this factored into much of what I did - my goal was less about making people do things my way and more about getting teachers together and giving them time to share ideas, insights, etc. Now I know not all teacher talk is productive. More than once I have worked in groups that were supposed to be developing instructional strategies but were derailed because of someone who was stuck repeating over and over "these kids can't learn" (what I now consider the most obnoxious phrase in the English language). However, I have been in way more bad professional development trainings than bad teacher groups. What I loved most about the work we did during this whole school professional development day was that facilitators presented us with some new materials, texts and ideas, and then let us work, discuss, plan, joke, enjoy and ultimately produce new tools for our classroom. That has always been the way I learn - through processing ideas with others, and integrating new ideas and knowledge into my own schema.

One of the things I do gain from any professional development, painful or productive, is a better understanding of how my students feel. It took me sitting through a two hour lecture last week in grad school to remember why my students are noisy and antsy after an hour of me talking at them, even when I think my words and writing prompts are engaging. The same holds with professional development. If working out ideas in groups, and jotting down notes and ideas works for me, it probably works for some of my students, even if I need to teach them what having a productive discussion looks like. Its a good reminder all around.

Now, I could end this post on the happy note from the last paragraph. But I have one more thing to say. It should be obvious now that I value and learn from groups of teachers working together towards a common goal of developing new instructional ideas. In most of the schools I have worked there has been little time for this happen. Either it doesn't exist at all, or the time is there but is very closely directed so that free teacher conversations aren't allowed to thrive. And this is what I think really is at the root of so much failed professional development. If you can't trust teachers to be productive adults on their own, how on earth can you expect that they can even be professionally developed, or even teach, in the first place? To me, this lack of trust has been at the root of all district and school sanctioned PD I have encountered. Even teacher groups often must have agendas approved by the administration. I don't know what crazy stuff these folks think is going to happen without their direction, but every informal teacher group I have been in has been far more productive and far more intellectually engaging to me than all PD combined. And I think that, until our educational system learns to trust its teachers, they will never be able to develop anyone or anything that can teach students.

Yummy Stuff:
So, I did not do much cooking this week. Thank goodness for my husband, because it would have been a week of canned soup otherwise, since I didn't get home before 7pm any night of the week. However, on Tuesday I have grad school classes until 9:30 at night. Last semester I often stopped at a nearby spot for a bagel with tofutti on my way to class, but that got expensive and fattening really quickly. My new goal is to make my own easy-to-carry dinner and bring it with me. Last week I sauteed some leftover portabello mushrooms and then put them on a bagel with hummus. This week I tried to make a protein rich blend that was easy to throw together and would get me through the night. It came out great!
Quinoa and Lentil salad
1/2 cup quinoa
1/2 cup green lentils
1/2 cup chickpeas
2 TB lemon juice
1 avocado

1) Boil 2 1/2 cups of water.
2) Pour in quinoa and lentils. Bring the water back up to a boil, and then turn it to simmer and put the lid on. Let it simmer for 20 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. (I was able to take a shower and get dressed during this step!)
3) Mix in the chickpeas and lemon juice.
4) just before you eat it, slice up the avocado and put it on top!

Really easy, really boring sounding, but perfect at 7:00 when you are learning about cognitive psychology!