So, I’ve been thinking about what I plan to read over the summer. There are a few more weeks before students and teachers are off, and I have a few books I would like to finish before then. I just finished I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finey Boylan, and currently, I am reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino.

 

As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to plan big, too big. I am teaching a new-to-me course next year, again, and have all of those books to read or reread as well, but somehow those don’t count. Plus, I have some teaching books I want to read. And, I’m sure I’ll read some YA and graphic novels in addition. I mean, there’s a new graphic novel about the Dalai Lama out!! (Man of Peace: The Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet by Robert Thurman and others. Fun facts: Professor Thurman taught a class I took in college, and my undergrad thesis was about Tibetan Buddhist women.)

Here’s my list to date.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. I gave this to my dad for Christmas and now get to read it myself.

The Amber Spy Glass by Philip Pullman. I have not read the final book in the His Dark Materials series. I am not letting myself start this one yet. I have things I need to do.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I have been eyeing this since it came out. My school library does not have it or I would have read it already.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. This is a potential read for my English class next year. (I may stick with the circus theme and reread The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern as another option.)

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is sitting on my kitchen table, waiting.

 

I sometimes like to read a few books that somehow relate or go together. Other times, I just read all over the place. I’m a big fan of women pioneer stories (non-fiction) and don’t have any of that on my list so far. It gets harder and harder to find ones I have not read at bookstores on the East Coast.

What else would you recommend?

 

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So I’ve been thinking about the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

The book was part of my senior elective “Young Adult Fiction’.” We read it after Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Hush by Jacqueline Woodson. The three books together made a thought-provoking group, in my opinion. And, ending with All American Boys really brought the discussion right into the classroom because by then everyone in my class had a character like them in play. The issues weren’t just for my group or your group of people. Everyone saw someone like themselves, somewhere in these three works. When I looked at the course evaluation I just did (which I wrote about the other day), this book got the most 5’s (~42%). It also got the most 2’s (~33%). Half the class rated it a 4 or 5. We had some good conversations about the book. The students were really interested in one character in particular, Paul, and wanted to know more about him; they almost needed to know more about him.

Then a few days ago, a student who is taking an interdisciplinary course called “Race and Ethnicity” interviewed me about the book. He read it as part of a project at the end of the semester. His teacher knew I had read the book with my class and suggested me as an interview subject. The student had good questions about my students’ responses to the book, my thoughts about the quality of the writing, the story, etc. He wanted some feedback on a lesson plan idea that he was proposing. All interesting.

However, the most interesting part was our brief discussion after the official interview. I asked him what he thought of the book and the two person point of view format, which had been one of his questions.

He said something along the lines of “I’ve been thinking about race all year in this class. But this book, ever since I read it, I’ve been thinking about it. It keeps popping up. I do something or something happens, and I think about the book again.” Ok, that seems like a pretty solid argument for reading the book.

Finally, I saw this on Twitter a few days later.

As I told the student who interviewed me, there are a lot of different reasons we (teachers) choose a particular book for an English class. The ability to start a conversation is one of them.

So now, putting these events together, I am thinking about my class and wondering more about how or if All American Boys stayed with them, allowed them to start a conversation, or made them uncomfortable. I wish I had asked them more about this particular book. Were some of the low ratings about discomfort? I’m totally ok with a book causing some discomfort and am wondering how much those 2’s are a reflection of that. Or, were they feeling ready for more of a change of subject matter? And, if so, what part of that is about wanting to look away from a difficult topic? I am debating whether it is worth emailing a few questions to my students, who are now finished and off doing senior projects for a few weeks before graduation. It would make me sad to get no responses.

In any case, am more convinced than ever that this is a book to read with students and discuss in community.

CCO public domain image.

So I’ve been thinking about student feedback and feedback about class climate in particular.

I give course surveys at the end of the course or semester in my English classes in the high school. I used to ask students in my 5th grade class about language arts class too. Then, I mostly asked about the books. What to “definitely keep” what to “definitely change”. I got feedback about class climate and the like in other ways; since we were together all the time, class climate was not related just to language arts.

Now, I don’t spend all day, every day with my English students. I asked my students about the books we read, the homework load, the assignment variety, grading etc. However, the question I am always most concerned about is this one:

Class climate. My goal is always to develop a climate in which all students feel valued, supported, and challenged. I want to hear from each student. Was I successful in creating that climate? Please explain what I might improve in this area.

This is the most important question, because it is where everything begins, IMO. A teacher can’t nail the class climate on day 1, because how could you really? It takes time to develop and foster. You can tell students you are this or that way all you want, but until you demonstrate the truth of those statements, they are just hypotheticals. But, you can’t forget about class climate either; it’s always there, in the background, either supporting or undermining everything you are trying to accomplish.

I read through all the responses about this and that, but what I am always anxious about is that class climate question. It’s the one that is closest to my heart and that I just don’t want to get wrong. I pick books that flop all the time. Not on purpose, of course. I think I do a decent job getting a mix of texts in there, but inevitably something really doesn’t fly. This school year it was KonTiki (for summer reading). There were other books that had their detractors, but none was as widely disliked as that, across two courses. Point taken.

Here are some examples what my students said in response to my class climate question:

  • I felt all of these things on the days that I did what I was supposed to.
    • Comment from me: Hmm. This was interesting to me. I would like to know more about this. How much is this about my response to students and how much is this about the fact that if you have not done the reading, it is hard to participate and feel included.
  • Yeah, I think everyone fit in the class and brought something valuable to the discussion.
    • Comment from me: I am reassured to think that students felt that everyone brought something to class, not just that I valued everyone, but they did too.
  • I felt welcome to voice my opinions in this class and I think everyone felt that way.
    • Comment from me: yay!
  • I felt comfortable expressing my thoughts and opinions in class, unlike some other classes I am taking.
    • Comment from me: yay, but why doesn’t this person feel that way elsewhere?
  • I felt valued, supported and challenged in class. You did this perfectly! I felt that every student felt encouraged and helped to bring up their thoughts in class.
    • Comment from me: Victory dance happening now.
  • I believe the class climate was exactly that. You were constantly asking everyone’s ideas because you truly wanted to know what all of us thought. To know that your ideas and opinions are valued means a lot. I don’t think there is anything that needs to be improved in this area.
    • Comment from me: More victory dancing, maybe some chocolate too.
  • The class climate was very even I feel, even the kids who were not very engaged in class were on the same level as the kids who consistently take notes and I like that level of equality as opposed to the opposite where the teacher picks favorites.
    • Comment from me: great. I don’t want anyone to think I have favorites. For kids to recognize that students are differently engaged and that there is still equity for all, is a win.

I feel pretty good about these results. The survey was anonymous, which I told people in advance. There are other areas that I can improve on, which I know. (Ahem, getting feedback to students in a timely manner!)

I have a few things I want to think about, but I’m feeling pretty good about this one.

 

So I’ve been thinking about terminology. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but a lot of times we hear words and terms that we think we all understand in the same way, and we don’t. Two different experiences have made me think about this idea.

First, I have been leading a task force investigating interdisciplinary teaching and learning at my school. I don’t think anyone came to the group with no thoughts about what interdisciplinary work was, yet we did not come close to having a shared understanding of the term. This became our first task.

The summer before beginning our work we all read Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. Even though we all read the same book, we still didn’t all have the same idea. In interpreting literature it may be okay to have slightly different readings of the text; however, when we are trying to focus on a particular pedagogy and don’t all have the same understanding of what that is, those differences are not okay.

After spending the school year talking, reading, and visiting schools, we are clearly not the only ones who have not nailed down what we mean by the words we used to describe our program. This was a year of slow learning and slow looking, terms I learned at a Project Zero conference in the fall, as we worked our way towards an understanding and then a definition of what we will call interdisciplinary learning at our school. We did not want to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of wheels out there; lots of them work just fine. What we needed to do was tweak an existing wheel that would work for our cart.

This process ultimately led us to work on several documents. Using our Jacobs-based definition, we applied it to an Understanding by Design lesson plan template (it’s licensed for reuse and alteration) and adjusted it to stress qualities and ideas that we wanted to highlight. More importantly, we wrote a document that describes where we are and what we believe about interdisciplinary work at our school. Again there’s already a lot written about what interdisciplinary work is, and we have leaned heavily on all of that earlier work.

Finally, we integrated that with our own terminology about teaching methods, mission language, and strategic plan ideas so that the language itself connects to our own native language. As the majority writer of this document, I feel confident in saying it is not going to win any awards. However, I think when we as a group sat down to look at a draft, we realized how far we had come. We could not have written such a document when we started; we may have been saying the same words, but we did not mean the same things. However in April after working together for most of a school year, we were ready to speak a common language. I am really proud of this.

My second recent experience that has made me aware of terminology is an online course I am finishing (Educating Global Citizens through Harvard Graduate School of Education). This time the terminology in question is connected to global competencies and global education. The individual words (global, competency, education) are more common than interdisciplinary, and in some ways so common that it’s hard to imagine that putting two of them together would not create a universally understood term. It turns out that is not the case.

The course began as one might expect with readings and lectures explaining both what how to define global competencies and the importance of a global education. It then quickly moved to the participants practicing describing this to others. There was an assignment to talk to another stakeholder in the school community and in a few minutes make a case for global education. I found this assignment to be surprisingly challenging. Why? Terminology.

I chose to talk to a non-educator. I did this intentionally. What I found was that I started in the middle, when what I needed to do was start with the terminology before I could say why it was important. I also found that the person I was talking to, of course, had other ideas about what these words mean beyond a school setting, which gave me another way to explain the importance of this kind of work.

One of the final assignments for this class is to record an elevator pitch. I’m still working on it, but I do have a plan. Rather than focusing on convincing the Listener of the importance of whatever I’m talking about, I’m thinking about spending most of my allotted minute on clarifying what global competencies are. Suggesting that a global education, whatever that means, is important in 2017 does not seem like a very hard sell; fewer words are necessary. What seems more in doubt is ensuring that my listener has the same understanding of what I mean by global competencies. 

Terminology. Not necessarily exciting, but you can’t go anywhere without it.

CCO public domain image by Karolina Grabowska

So I’ve been thinking about my graded discussions for a long time. I have written about assigning jobs, about giving people partners to look out for, about smaller groups. All of this has really been about finding ways for students to engage meaningfully in discussion.

I have told students over and over, in as many ways as I can think to tell them, about the value of participating in discussions. First, it is a way to try out ideas. It is a chance to articulate an idea that you might want to use later and get some feedback on it before you commit it to paper. In addition, engaging in discussion is a chance to listen, to know classmates as thinkers who may think differently than you do. Finally, truly engaging in discussion is a chance to change. It is a chance to let the ideas of others change our ideas, to come into a conversation with one idea and leave with a different one. It is a chance to evolve and adapt.

Is this final potential of conversation to change us that is the most elusive in the classroom, in my opinion. Who is routinely aware of each idea she has at the beginning of class and who takes the time to carefully compare these beginning ideas to the ones she has as she heads out the door? Not me most days. However every once in awhile the stars and planets align just right and we have an aha moment on the most unlikely of days.

This happened in my class on April 13th. It was a Thursday (with Friday off); it was a beautiful day, and we were meeting last period. These things do not generally come together to create wonderful class periods. In preparation for our discussion, I had given the students the question for discussion in advance, and they were to think about that for homework. The topic was, of course, related to things we had been discussing over the course of reading of the novel (Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan).

As I mentioned, it was a beautiful day, so we went outside. We sat in the grass and students started talking. At one point a student asked, “do you think there is any storyline that was unnecessary for the book?” (The book has a number of storylines, and at times the students were annoyed by having to keep track of them.) This topic appealed to the other students, and many volunteered a storyline they would cut. However, for each storyline that was put on the chopping block, there was another voice arguing it was critical and needed to be saved.  This pattern continued as each storyline was proposed for removal and then rejected. At some point, a student said “Wait, I want to change my answer. I don’t think any of the stories can go. I think the book needs them all.”

And the earth split open, and there was beautiful music, and unicorns appeared.

I have to say this was one of the most exciting moments of these discussions for me. To have the students talk themselves through an idea, debate both sides of several options, and then have someone actually bring all the particulars together and clearly state I’m going to change my ideas based on what I’ve heard everyone say;  I think differently now?! This was exactly when I knew people were listening to each other and truly engaging in the kind of discussion that I want to have.

I tried not to jump up and down and do cartwheels right there. Since I was wearing a skirt, cartwheels were definitely out of the question. I did pause the conversation briefly to celebrate and to point out that this is why we have these focussed conversations. This is why we delve deeply into a particular idea over an extended period of time. We want to be sure that we have really exhausted our understanding and are confident with where we have landed.

The student who initially voiced her change of opinion is an excellent synthesizer in discussion. She was able not just to hear her classmates defend each story, but to understand that putting it all together meant something bigger. Not only do we have this very public moment of recognizing that we changed our minds based on discussion, based on engaging with other people and ideas, but most of the students also came away with a deeper appreciation for the book and its intentional structure. 

And then, the bell rang, and it was the weekend.

CCO public domain image from Pixabay.

So, I’m still thinking about my observations. The other day I wrote about my experience in the math department in particular. This time, I’m thinking about the students.

At this point, I have observed a lot of classes. Even though I meet afterward with the teachers, I often think about the students. There are plenty of students whom I know by name or grade, but whom I do not teach or have never taught. For these students, I have vague impressions based on things like how they walk down the hall, how loud they are in the library, who they sit with at lunch. None of these is anything on which to base even a guess as to what they are like in class. And yet, don’t we all make those kinds of guesses all the time?

Seeing these students whom I don’t know as students in class has been so interesting. Since I am observing rather than teaching, I can really look around and see that big picture. Yes, so-and-so is not good at sitting still and talks out of turn, but is also on topic and engaged, while walking across the back of the room to switch chairs. Someone else who slouches through the day, trailing papers, once settled sits up and is focussed.

Now that I am mostly an administrator, I only teach a relatively few number of students in my English and Digital Fabrication classes, and even those students I see in only one learning environment. I try to make sense of the whole person by putting together the pieces I see in class with what I see around school and what I learn from other teachers. I try to go to one extra event that each of my students does during the semester (a game, a concert, whatever).

However, the vast majority of students I don’t teach, and therefore don’t see doing the most school-ish thing—learning in class. It’s strange to think that for a lot of students, I know the least about them as students. When I was a lower school, teacher and taught in a self-contained classroom, I knew all of my students so well; we spent all day together, went to recess together, went to lunch together, got ready to go home together. That leaves a mark. And, even though I had only one section of 5th grade, I had enough interaction with the other sections and teachers to know all of the 5th graders pretty well. For most of the students that I have now observed in class, I have seen a more studious version of the person I see in the hallways, a more lively person than I see in the library. It’s been wonderful to see all of these people as learners and members of an academic community.

Plus, the way schedule crumbled meant that I got to see several students in multiple classes purely by accident. I enjoyed seeing the same student interact with different content, with different classroom environments, with different teacher strategies. I got to see what part of the student was consistent across all those classes and what part changed, just like I used to see with my 5th graders.

More wins for me.

CCO public domain image by Pixabay user

So, I’ve been thinking about classroom observations. I have been observing colleagues informally at my school this spring. What that means is I look at my schedule for the week, find some time when I don’t have a meeting/class/whatnot, look at the master schedule, find out who is teaching what, and drop by for 10-20 minutes.

I decided to pick a department and stick with it until I had observed each teacher. I did this partly because it made it economical to go between classes in terms of time. It has turned out to be a great choice for a first go round. I started with Math.

It’s been a long time since I was in a high school math class. I found that there were classes where all or most of the content came back, and I could listen along with the students. Then, there were classes where content didn’t really come back; words sounded familiar, but I really did not know what was going on mathematically. And, there were classes somewhere in between. However, since I was not necessarily there to learn math that really did not matter.

One of the things I noticed, particularly in classes where I was not necessarily familiar anymore with the specifics of how to do or solve the problems, was that I did have access to the patterns and the big picture. For example, in one class I observed a teacher put a few things on the board in a chart. She asked students to look and share what they noticed. A couple of students had big picture comment to make. Most students saw the trees and really didn’t or couldn’t step back and wonder if there was a place in the forest where the trees were short, or place in the forest where all the trees had no leaves. I, on the other hand, was not burdened by the details, and so for me, the patterns and the interesting similarities between data points were relatively easy to see.

I spoke to the teacher afterward and I said that I had thought that the point she was trying to make with the chart was interesting and told here that I had found it actually the part that was easiest for me to do, yet surprisingly hard for the students to do. We talked about how it happens that students get lost in the specifics of the content.

I have to say this idea of the details and the big picture and what students find easier and more challenging to do is really fascinating to me. Always has been. I see it in my English classes all the time; it just looks a little different. There are often students who love the big picture, love the big themes and grand ideas of the book. When it gets down to the specific details of solving the problem and actually defending those big ideas, explaining how the author very specifically builds those ideas, they either lose interest or don’t quite know where to go. And, I have students who would love to collect details, see all those little trees, and never or rarely get to what kind of forest that makes. 

So interesting.

I am sure teachers in math classes find that there are students who love those patterns but do not really want to do the work of solving the problem or be particular. And, then are there other students who are happy to follow the directions, complete the steps in the right order, but don’t ever really step back and see what it all means. 

What conversations should we be having across disciplines to compare notes? Are the same students big picture thinkers in all disciplines? What strategies and vocabulary are we using that are working?

I can’t wait to think about another department in a new way.