Thursday, July 17, 2014

I'm a struggling student

Yoga, running, and knitting help me think about students who struggle in my class. Knitting doesn't count as much as the first two because I've gained a lot of knitting skills in a short time, but yoga and running continue to kick my butt every single practice.

Practicing yoga in class with a great teacher is satisfying and humbling! There are always poses I can do much more readily than others in the room, and there are many poses that I see others achieve and feel only awe and think "I'm probably never going to do that". Some poses (usually involving lifting the body with hands/arms) make me laugh outright because I can't even believe the human body can do that right in front of my eyes! What I love best about good yoga practice and teaching is the idea that I can always do SOMETHING, a move or pose or even (especially) intention that will help me move closer to achieving that supposedly impossible pose and, most importantly, gain the benefits of that pose without actually achieving it (yet). In essence, every "impossible" pose is possible.

Yoga isn't a perfect analogy because my students don't choose to come to my class the same way I choose to go to yoga class. Even so, I think about my students when I practice the possible parts of the impossible poses. I think about being more patient with students who struggle, offering possible parts of impossible reading or writing tasks, emphasizing the learning process as change and growth, and acknowledging success at every stage of the process.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Balanced literacy and other controversies about my job

On the first day back from a two-week vacation in Taiwan, I read online a few articles about the Balanced Literacy debate in the New York City area schools. (Here are letters to the editor that reference the published articles.) A friend and fellow English teacher directed me to one Op-Ed article, then I found others, and pretty soon my jet-lagged brain cried, "Please! Let's move on to something that doesn't hurt, like shopping for yoga pants!"

In 2003, Balanced Literacy was the model I tried to follow for the next five years teaching 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts. Then I switched to be the Academic Intervention Services teacher the next five years, which shifted/narrowed my focus to reading comprehension, particularly in the standardized testing context. At the same time, I learned a great deal about the reading workshop models promoted by Donalyn Miller and Nancie Atwell, and I devoted time and effort to reading a wide range of literature for students and teaching students to become independent readers.

This blog has chronicled my development as an English teacher since 2007, sometimes intensely in the first few years of the blog, but it has tapered off to an occasional trickle in the last few years. One main reason why I stopped blogging is that I'm tired of jostling for position in the increasingly public debates about my profession. I'm the one working every day, planning, teaching, grading, reading, writing, calling, meeting, conferencing, repeat. Occasionally I'm flattered by the attention, the same way I'm glad many faculty meetings have been devoted to the standardized test scores of my students, because of course I think my subject is important. Usually the attention is annoying and frustrating, unproductive for my work and my students' learning, and barely deserves eye-rolls from me, eye-rolls that say, "You can talk and write all you want about English instruction, you can be lauded and criticized for research and models and results, but you don't know much about my work, my students, my classroom, so I'm moving on because I have work to do."

In the first few weeks of summer vacation, I tend to move on to personal interests like traveling, knitting, shopping, and some other things that were set aside during the school year. I don't know much, but I know I busted my butt last year and worked damn hard to plan, teach, grade, read, write, call, meet, conference, and a million other things that will never show up on the New York Times. This Monday I'm going to school to plan, evaluate, okay, maybe read more about the balanced literacy debate in New York City. But as I look at my "tentative" class lists for this coming school year, I know the value of public controversies and commentaries about my students' learning, and I will make my move.