If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer Camp: Personal Learning Using Sports

My first summer camp job, back while I was still in college, was teaching swimming at a sports camp at my old high school. While the camp certainly focused on teaching athletic skills in the various sports that were offered, the main goal of the camp was to use sports as a means to teach important life skills: teamwork, sportsmanship, the value of practice and hard work, and so on.

Each class, regardless of the sport, began and ended with a warm up and cool down in which the kids were asked to set goals for the day and then evaluate their performance. In swimming these tended to be more individual goals. "I will swim a full length of the pool without stopping." "I will put my face in the water." But in the team sports there was also an emphasis on group skills. "I will congratulate an opponent on a good play." "I will pass the ball to a teammate."

Because of these warm up and cool down times, the experience of sports was much more about process than about result. I have tried to maintain that emphasis as a coach at the middle school and high school levels. I have coached an undefeated state championship volleyball team, as well as multiple teams who have not won a single game, and a little of everything in between. Hopefully what all those experiences have had in common for the players on those teams was an emphasis on having fun and on getting a little bit better every day. As in the classroom, it has been a good day at sports practice if you have improved, and maybe learned a bit about yourself in the process.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My School Would Have A 'No Cut' Policy For Sports

Despite being a varsity swimmer in high school and a club volleyball player in college, despite the fact that I continue to play just about any sport that people are willing to let me play with them, I have never really seen myself as an athlete. There are many reasons for this, but I think it mostly traces back to my sports experiences in middle school and early high school. Like most experiences at that age, they were pretty miserable. Let's work through the list.

  • In 7th grade I tried out for the middle school soccer team and was cut. In the winter, I tried out for the middle school basketball team and was cut. In the spring, I tried out for the middle school baseball team and actually made the team. I continued playing baseball until my senior year when I was cut for the second time from the varsity team (seniors weren't allowed on JV).
  • In 8th grade I didn't bother trying out for soccer or basketball, spending most of my afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons and computer games with my similarly un-athletic friends.
  • In 9th grade I was cut from the freshmen soccer team, but was allowed to play on the middle school team. I fared pretty well playing against 7th and 8th graders. I actually made the freshmen basketball team, but was cut from the JV team the following year, ending my basketball career.
  • In 11th grade I finally found swimming, made the varsity team, and swam both of my remaining two years of high school.
  • My freshman year of college, I tried out for the volleyball club and got cut. I played every intramural volleyball game I could find for the next year and was able to make the team my sophomore year.
If we count it up, from 7th grade to my freshman year in college, I was cut from seven teams, a perfect average of one per year. It's not hard to understand how with that feedback at a critical age, I have never considered myself much of an athlete, even when I was playing on an inter-collegiate sports team.

I don't put this list out there to complain (if I hadn't been cut from soccer, I never would have played intramural volleyball in high school, and therefore wouldn't have played in college; and if I hadn't been cut from basketball I would never have found swimming), or even to show off my stubborn, blind persistence. My point is really that most kids aren't likely to be quite as bull-headed about it as I was. I wonder how many people who could have had a lifetime of enjoying sports just gave up after being cut from a team early on.

Since I graduated, my former school has adopted a 'no cut' policy for its middle school sports teams, and many of the places I have worked have had similar policies. When I coach, I try to give every player an equal opportunity to develop, and to experiences all the joys and pains that go along with being on a sports team. You never know which of those gawky 7th graders might grow up seeing himself as an actual athlete someday.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An Almost Olympic Theme at the Carnival of Education

This week's Carnival of Education is up at JoanneJacobs.com, probably my favorite education blog. The more or less Olympic theme of the week features my post from yesterday right up near the top of the page. Go check it out, then come back here tomorrow for more on sports in schools.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Michael Jordan Says It's OK To Fail

I am currently reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. I'll save my overall thoughts on the book for a later post, but a train of thought that started while reading her book fits into this week's theme of sports and school. The basic thesis of Dweck's book is that there are two kinds of people out there, those who believe that our abilities are malleable and therefore work to improve themselves, and those who believe that we're basically stuck with what God gave us and therefore whine and complain a whole lot. I am seriously oversimplifying here, but you get the basic idea.

In her chapter on sports, Dweck runs through a series of athletes who display the "growth mindset," the belief that ability comes as the result of a lot of hard work. She mentions the following Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan (I love YouTube; you can find anything there).

Her point is that successful people take each failure as a chance to improve, something they know they have to work harder at. For me, this is one of the lessons of sports that is most valuable in the classroom. In sports, you practice. You play a game or a match. You either win or lose, but even when you win, you make mistakes; so you come back to practice, and you work on improving those skills so that next time you do better.

The classroom should function on a similar cycle. You learn new material. You take a test on that material. The vast majority of students will make some mistakes on that test, so you come back in and you work on learning from those mistakes and further expanding your skills.

As a Spanish teacher, one of the biggest impediments to learning in my classroom is the fear of making mistakes, and therefore the fear of speaking at all. I try to get my students to see that it's just like practice, and that if they don't give themselves a chance to fail, they will never learn. If it worked for Michael Jordan, it will work for them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympic Ideal: Do Sports And School Go Together?

My eyes are a little glazed over this morning from 48 hours of intense Olympics watching. At times like these, our DVR is both a blessing and a curse as I find myself wondering how I am ever going to have enough time to watch all the coverage we have recorded already. I guess that's what vacation is for. As a high school swimmer and college volleyball player, I love the Summer Olympics for the opportunity to see my sports featured so much. I feel like I've just walked into Willy Wonka's factory. (Also, I'm about 24 hours behind catching up with what we've recorded, so don't tell me anything that's happened since Saturday night.)

I thought I would take this opportunity, as sports and the Olympic ideal are so much on our minds, to do a series of posts on athletics in schools. Living abroad as much as we have in the last few years has given me a chance to see how much the close connection between athletics and schools, both at the high school and college levels, is, while not a uniquely American phenomenon, certainly much stronger here than almost anywhere else in the world. This close connection between athletics and academic education has its pluses and minuses. As someone for whom sports were a big part of my education, and for whom coaching has been a big part of my teaching career, I tend to think that the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I am not blind to the problems, either.

Over the next few days, I plan to explore the benefits and drawbacks of sports as an intrinsic part of a formal education. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. What would the role of athletics be in your ideal school?

Friday, August 8, 2008

From the Archives: Students and Teachers in the Facebook Age

I've mentioned before that since I started this blog, I have been keeping an archive of articles and blog posts that I think might someday give me an idea for a post of my own. Generally I do this by emailing myself the links and archiving them in gmail under the label "blog ideas." My goal for these couple of weeks before faculty meetings was to work my way through some of those archived articles. I clicked on the "blog ideas" label this morning, and gmail brought up 120+ emails, so I guess I've got my work cut out for me.

Down near the bottom of the list was this Washington Post article about young teachers getting into trouble because their Facebook profiles contained information, language, or images that their schools (I think rightly so) found inappropriate for people working with children and teenagers. The article got a lot of attention in the edublogs when it came out, and most of the discussion centered around trying to define appropriate internet behavior in the Facebook/MySpace age.

The article strikes a chord for me now as I am gearing up for my job at a new school later this month. The school describes itself as "unconventional" in a number of ways, one of the most obvious being the basic relationship between teachers and students. Students call all their teachers by first names, and this is symbolic of a general atmosphere in which the students see their teachers more as friends in a cooperative activity than as authority figures. At this point in my career, this will probably be as big an adjustment as it was at 21 to walk into my first classroom, where students were expected to stand every time I entered the room, and become Mr. K------ for the first time.

Based on the day and a half that I have spent on campus at the school so far, this more informal relationship between teachers and students seems to work well for this particular school and for the environment that they have created there. I'm not sure it is something that would generalize to all school environments. For me, the main challenge is going to be rethinking and redefining my own relationship with the students, and finding that line where friendship ends, and authority begins. Fortunately, my Facebook profile doesn't say anything about me sleeping with a hooker, so I'm a step ahead of some people already.

What do you think the ideal relationship between teachers and students is?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Kalamazoo Promise: Motivated Students Are "Easier" Students

The Kalamazoo Promise has been getting more and more press lately, most recently in this WSJ article about how the program is helping to attract businesses and residents back into Kalamazoo. The basic idea of The Promise is that it provides partial college tuition to any student who spends their high school career in Kalamazoo's public schools, and full college tuition to anyone who is there K-12. It is an automatic college scholarship for all Kalamazoo residents.

I first heard about The Kalamazoo Promise when it had just started from Anonymous Friend, who actually grew up in Kalamazoo and was a housemate of ours during our time in England. Anonymous Friend is a regular reader of this blog, and she sent me an email the other day after my post about teaching in private schools. Her basic question was whether students in private schools were more motivated than their public school counterparts, and if so, whether it had anything to do with the much stronger likelihood that they would be attending college after high school. She was back in Kalamazoo visiting family and reported:

I ran into my AP English teacher yesterday and we were talking about the "Kalamazoo Promise," and she was telling me that, since the Promise, enrollment in AP classes at my old high school is off the charts, and she finds that the students are much more focused and "easier" to teach.
The statistics quoted by the WSJ seem to tell a similar story. According to the article, high school graduation rates are up 21% since 2005 when the program was introduced. I am not an expert in these things, but I can't imagine many other changes that would boost graduation rates 20% in two years.

The message seems clear to me. If we want schools full of motivated and successful students, students who are "easier" to teach, we need to be able to give those students a vision of what comes next for them, and how the things they are doing in school are preparing them for that future. From a policy standpoint, that may mean looking at more and more ways to make college affordable for everyone (assuming that not every city or town in America has an anonymous cabal of philanthropists with the money to send all its students to college). From the school's point of view, that means finding ways in everything we do to show the students the future paths that are open to them, and to be very explicit about the connections between what they are doing in school and what they are going to be doing in the future. If those connections aren't there, then we need to seriously rethink what we're teaching in school.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What I'm Reading Next--Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

I just finished reading El capitán Alatriste. I wrote yesterday about how I may have discovered in it a whole new unit for my Spanish 5 class, so today I'll limit myself to a brief recommendation of the book itself. First of all, for those of you who don't feel up to reading a 200+ page book in Spanish, there is an English translation (Captain Alatriste). It's a very fun read. At the heart it is an entertaining adventure story. Captain Alatriste is a veteran of the Spanish wars against the Netherlands in the early 17th century, now back in a decadent and declining Madrid trying to get by as a sword for hire. He takes a job to ambush and kill two unidentified Englishmen, and soon finds himself way over his head in the middle of major historical and political events, just trying to get out with his skin in tact. Layered over the story is the historical and cultural context of one of Spain's (and Europe's) most interesting periods, as it comes out of the Siglo de Oro and finds its power and influence in the world declining. Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Velázquez all appear as characters, as do various kings and princes. It's just fun all around, especially for fans of historical fiction. Enjoy!

Next up: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Sometimes all it takes to get me to read a book is to hit me over the head with it enough times. I first encountered Carol Dweck's name during our faculty development day back in February. The presenter was Harvard neuropsychology professor Jane Bernstein, and she made extensive reference to Dweck's research at Stanford on achievement and success. Largely because of that presentation, Mindset is one of the two summer reading books for faculty. Then there was this NYT piece about the book, which my wife forwarded to me a couple weeks ago. In the end, I got the message, and I'm reading the book. I'll let you know how it is.

Posts about previous titles:
Watership Down
Three Cups of Tea
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spanish Culture Through Film or Why I'm a Big Nerd

As I mentioned yesterday, I am in the middle of putting together the curriculum outline for my Spanish 5 class for this coming year. While the thing I most enjoy about teaching is being in the classroom with the students, opportunities like this are high up on my list of why I love being a teacher. The freedom to reach out into the world around me and bring things into the classroom, even if that means a major overhaul of my curriculum, always keeps my job fresh and new, and keeps me learning, which is half the fun.

In this specific case I am reworking a class I taught back in NJ: Spanish Culture Through Film. The basic idea of the course was to watch a Spanish language movie, discuss it in the cultural and historical contexts, throw in some grammar review, and finish it up by having the students write and film their own movie based on the themes of our discussions. I always got great feedback from the students on the class, even if the movies were not all to their tastes, and they generally made good progress with their Spanish along the way.

The real joy, though, is that as I revisit this course that I haven't taught in five years, the experiences I have had since then give me a chance to refine and improve it. Some of those things are planned, but others are happy accidents.

As I mentioned in my latest What I'm Reading Now post, I recently picked up El capitan Alatriste on the recommendation of a former student. My intention was just to brush the rust off my Spanish at the end of a summer, and to enjoy a fun adventure story. As I began reading, though, I realized how much fantastic historical and cultural material is built into the book. I've already ordered the movie version of the book, a highly popular and award winning movie when it came out in Spain, and I may have the makings of a whole new segment for my class on the Siglo de Oro and Spain's decline in the 17th century. My job is really fun sometimes (although it helps that I'm a big nerd).

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Best Teachers Want To Be Creative Teachers

We're just back from an extra long weekend of visiting family up in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The trip was somewhat unexpected and prompted by a sad event, but in the process I got to spend some extra time with my family, including some people I hadn't seen in many many years, so there was, as always, a silver lining.

While in NJ, we spent the night at my uncle's house. My uncle is on the school board in his district, and he and his wife are very focused and involved in their children's education. We got to talking about my new jobs, both the one I just finished and the one I'm about to start. In the process, my aunt gave me a minor guilt trip about teaching in private schools. It's not an unusual conversation for me to have. Between those who think private schools are elitist havens for the liberal and out of touch and those who think that schools and teachers should be serving the most under-served, there is not a lot of middle ground for a teacher to claim.

My answer to my aunt, and to everyone else I have this conversation with, comes down to one basically selfish issue: curriculum control. Now that my summer job is over, my main responsibility over the next few weeks is to outline the curriculum for the Spanish 5 class I will be teaching this year. There is a certain amount of material that I am required to include, but basically I am free to design the entire class. This isn't an aberration in the world of private schools. In my eight plus years of teaching so far, I have had this kind of curricular control over four or five of the courses I have taught, and in most of the others have still had a great deal of autonomy. Compare my experience to the complaints of Not So Master Teacher over at his blog and you can begin to see the attraction of teaching in private schools.

One of the perennial topics in education is how to recruit and keep bright, dedicated people in the teaching ranks. I know there are many pieces to that puzzle, but for me a big piece is always this. Smart, interesting people need to feel like they are getting to use their creativity and intelligence in their work. If we make teaching an assembly line profession, the most qualified teachers aren't going to be interested in doing it for very long.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer Camp: Student Choice

One of the central characteristics of my former camp was the focus on student choice. This focus was played out in many ways, but always came back to the idea that the students should feel ownership over everything that they did. One example of how this was put into practice was in video class, in which a small group of students planned, acted, filmed and helped edit a short movie.

During the first days of the class, students would go through a basic brainstorming process. They start with genres, and work their way to brainstorming more specific plot ideas. They are coached that all ideas are valid at this point in the process and that they should only react positively to other people's ideas.

Once a sufficient number of ideas are up on the board, they start the decision making process. They are invited to advocate for ideas that they particularly like (but never to criticize someone else's ideas). After everyone has had a chance to put in a good word for their favorite, the ideas get narrowed down. The emphasis is on building a consensus in which everyone is happy with the final decision. Counselors help them along using a lot of the 'yes and' approach. 'Yes your movie can be about aliens taking over the camp and cheerleaders who travel in time. We can make that work.'

When the plot of the movie has been chosen, the students continue to be involved in as many of the decisions as possible. Where should the camera be in this scene? What would make this more understandable for the audience? Was that take good enough, or should we film another?

The challenge when you put the focus so much on what the students want is that you could end up with the inmates running the asylum. When it is a parody of Lord of the Rings meets Finding Nemo, it's not too big a deal if the kids make kid-like decisions from time to time. But if we are going to bring these ideas into the classroom, there's a lot more at stake. There is curriculum to cover, and good behavior to teach, and that ever-important classroom management.

So how do we give students choices without them making the wrong choices? Is there even a place for student choice in the classroom?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: El Capitán Alatriste

I just finished reading Watership Down. The advantage of reading a book that I first read when I was eleven is that it goes pretty quickly 22 years later. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is the story of a small group of rabbits who, worried that something terrible is about to happen in the warren in which they grew up, go off in search of a new place to live. The world is a big and scary place, full of predators, men and their machines, and other rabbits both friendly and hostile. It is a great adventure story, and I enjoyed reading it as an adult at least as much as I did the first time through.

Re-reading it with a teacher's eyes, I certainly understand why my teachers assigned it to me in the first place. Interwoven with the entertaining adventure story are all kinds of problems that young teenagers can identify with. There are issues of being outsiders and getting bullied. There are authority figures who won't listen to or believe the younger rabbits. There is the need to declare independence from those authority figures and set out on their own. There are societies with oppressive and unjust rules. I have long since forgotten any class discussions we had about the book when I was a student, but there are so many things to talk about that I wish I could go back and be a fly on the wall while seventh grade Jeff worked through the story with his class.

Next up: El capitan Alatriste
I am not a native Spanish speaker, so my Spanish needs regular maintenance. One thing I try to do is a read a book in Spanish on a regular basis. With the school year approaching, it seemed like a good time to dust off the language skills. The Alatriste series has been incredibly popular in Spain and has already been made into a movie. A number of my English students from our time in England recommended both the books and the movie to me.

While we were in The Gambia, a Colombian friend there lent me another of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's books, La reina del sur. What impressed me the most about that book is that Pérez-Reverte, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy, is able to tell a gripping adventure story without sacrificing any of the literary merit of the book. He is a gifted writer, and I'm looking forward to digging in to his most popular series.

Posts about previous titles:
Three Cups of Tea
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Camp: Challenges

In this series of summer camp related posts, I keep coming back to the day camp back in Massachusetts where I have been a camper, counselor and administrator. Many of my ideas about what an ideal school would be like, especially in terms of building community and character, come from my experiences there. One of the big pieces of that community building experience was what we called challenges.

Anyone who has done a leadership training course or any sort of Project Adventure program will be familiar with the idea of challenges. Basically, a group is assigned a cooperative task with a set of proscribed rules to make the task more difficult. Completing the task generally requires that the group work very well together and that every member of the group be involved in getting to the finish. One of the classic examples is a challenge we called 'The Peanut Butter Pit.' The task is to get the entire group from a start point to an end point across a boiling pit of sticky peanut butter/corrosive acid/radioactive sludge. Between the start line and the end line, the campers are not allowed to touch the ground. All they have to help them across are a series of evenly spaced cinder blocks in the middle of the pit, and two or three narrow but sturdy boards. The goal is to challenge both their cooperative and problem solving skills.

Generally, we did about three challenges over the course of a four week session, each one a little longer than the one before. The last and longest was generally supposed to take about one full day of camp, although there are legends about epic challenges that took three or four days to complete. Each challenge also came with a back story, usually involving counselors in costume breaking into circle time to enlist the campers help preventing some imminent threat to the camp, the world or the universe.

At the end of the challenge (and often in the middle of more difficult ones) counselors would lead group discussions about how things had gone, what worked and didn't work, and what they could take away from the experience and apply to other areas of life. They were given a chance to give a 'hats off' to members of the group who had been especially helpful, and were guided to the idea that a successful group effort requires both leaders and followers. Finally, the all gave each other a ceremonial pat on the back to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

As a counselor and a teacher, I took a number of lessons away from working with kids on these challenges:

1) Frustration is an important part of the learning process. Personal growth comes from overcoming challenges, even artificial ones. Students need to learn how to handle themselves when things don't come easily. If they can learn that lesson in the relatively safe environment of school, it will serve them well throughout their lives.

2) We learn lessons best when we explicitly talk about them. Somewhere in the teaching process, we need to have a conversation with the students about why they are doing the things they are doing, and what it is we hope they get out of it. The more we give them a chance to talk about the goals, and assess their own progress towards them, the better off they will be.

3) Sometimes students should just be left to figure stuff out for themselves. One of the key pieces to being a counselor in the challenges was to create a safe environment and then to leave them alone to figure out the solution. They need the confidence-building experience of being the ones to solve the problem on their own.

I'm not suggesting in all this that classroom time be taken away from academic pursuits and replaced with team building activities, but I do think that some of the structure of these challenges could be carried over into the classroom. Give the students a difficult task that stretches their abilities, allow them the chance to work through it on their own, even when it is frustrating, and then come back at the end and debrief. In this way, they not only learn the material, but they learn how to work and think independently.

What do you do to really challenge your students?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Is No Vacation From Crazy Over-Involved Parents

Friday was the last day of my summer job as Assistant Director of the summer camp at the school where I have been working since January. I have three weeks mostly to myself before faculty meetings start at my new school. My long and involved to-do list prevents me from calling it a vacation, but the fact that my alarm clock won't be ringing at 6:00 AM for a few weeks is making me pretty happy at the moment. Most of my efforts over the next few weeks need to be focused on preparing for the new school year (I have a whole course curriculum to revamp before school starts), but before I move on to thoughts of September, I wanted to finish up with a few more summer camp themed posts. After all, it's not even August yet.

Saturday's New York Times ran this article about how the phenomenon of over-involved, over-protective parents has spilled over from schools into summer camps. The article focuses on how camps have been forced to hire full time parent liaisons to deal with the constant meddling of parents who are freaked out that their kids are eating too much/too little, not putting on enough sun screen, not making enough friends, or are simply not happy enough. For me, the most telling/depressing/amusing bit was about the parents who send their kids off to the woods with two cell phones, so that if the first one is found and confiscated, the kid will have a second phone hidden away and can still be reached. When the parents start conspiring with their kids to break the rules, camps (and schools, too) are in big trouble.

My job this summer was at a day camp, so the parental separation anxiety was not so much of an issue, but this didn't mean we avoided problems with over-involved parents. Take, for example, one little boy we will call Stephen. Stephen is one of those kids for whom ever little thing is a big deal. Stephen averaged at least one visit per day to the nurses office, almost always to show her (as if it had just been sustained) a cut or a bruise that was clearly many days old. This reached its most worrisome point when mom sent a vaguely threatening email asking why her son was coming home from camp every day with so many scratches and bruises.

On Friday, I was walking down the hall past the boys bathroom when the door opened a crack, and Stephen peeked out asking for help. I entered the bathroom to find Stephen entangled in a white dress shirt that, in his efforts to put it on, had become more like a straight jacket. That afternoon was the final performance for his week-long musical theater class, and he had spent the last ten minutes struggling to change into the black and white clothes he needed for the performance. I helped him untangle himself and get his arms through the appropriate sleeves, asked him if he could manage his pants by himself, and went back out into the hall. Five minutes later, Stephen was back at the door in his white shirt and underwear needing more help. His black pants were a couple of inches too long in the leg, not too mention too big at the waist, and he was completely baffled by this problem. I went back in, got him into his pants, rolled up the legs so that his feet were showing at the bottom, watched him struggle into his shoes, and sent him on his way, only fifteen minutes late to class.

An hour later, I went in to watch the performance of Stephen's class. They did adorable renditions of "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King and "It's a Hard Knock Life" from Annie. There were many born performers in the class, but Stephen was not one of them. He spent most of the performance with his hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his over-sized pants, clearly trying as hard as he could to blend into the crowd.

Now, all of this would simply be a cute story about a shy and slightly immature kid who needed some work on confidence and self-reliance, but then mom showed up. First of all, let's point out that mom showed up at 2:00 for a 1:45 performance, which meant she arrived just in time to get stuck at the back of the 2:00 carpool line. Eventually she made her way in, picked up her son, and started walking with him back to her car. On their way to the car, Stephen apparently told his mom that all the kids had been laughing at him during the performance. It's important to know that there were no kids in the audience, only parents. All the kids in the room were much more focused on dancing and singing than on laughing at one of their classmates. That Stephen was embarrassed on stage was true, but had nothing to do with the reactions of anyone in the room.

Mom came storming back in, accosted me (the first adult she could find) and demanded to speak to the teacher in the class. When I told her that the teacher was already teaching her next class, she gave me one of those if-looks-could-kill kind of stares and informed me that she would be expecting a call from the teacher as soon as her class was over. Then she stormed out. Two hours later she was back. She had left Stephen to attend his final class of the day, and was there to pick him up from extended day. When I walked in, she had cornered the Director in our office, and was demanding (with only about half a dozen kids left on campus on the final day of camp) that we do something about how unhappy her son had been after the performance.

I'll leave it there, and just say that the Director handled the whole situation much more deftly than I ever would have done, reassuring the mom that her son was generally a happy kid, and that he had probably just been suffering from a little stage fright. The real point, though, is that this is not just one crazy mom who goes on the attack every time her child is a little upset. Every teacher (or camp counselor) could come up with half a dozen of these stories without even having to think very hard about it.

This is a real challenge for schools. One of the things we should be trying to accomplish is helping students grow up to be independent, self-reliant adults. Our ideal graduate should be someone who is ready to go off into the world and take care of himself when the need arises. The question becomes, then, how do we work with parents to let their kids grow up independently, even if that means that sometimes they are going to be unhappy?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Build a School returns Monday, but first, why Comcast is the Worst Company in America

My blogging vacation continues here for a couple more days. The combination of spending my days helping to keep a 250 student summer camp up and running, and my evenings without reliable internet access, have kept me away from posting for a couple of weeks now. Camp is over tomorrow, though, and Comcast seems to have finally got our internet working again, so I'll be back on Monday with daily posts as I switch gears to thinking about the rapidly approaching school year. I've got a bunch of ideas saved up, including a few more on the summer camp theme before those go back on the shelf till next year.

In the meantime, the vindictive side of me wants to use this little soap box of mine to stick it to Comcast. I won't bore you with the details of our particular case. But please click on over to The Consumerist, where Comcast is in the finals in their Worst Company in America competition. Put in a vote for them, and if you ever have the choice, I recommend any other company over Comcast.

OK, I feel much better now, and I'll be back to full time posting on Monday, so check in then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Watership Down

I'm in the middle of a largely Comcast induced vacation from blogging. It's a long story, but let's just say I'm not recommending Comcast to my friends these days. In the meantime, I've had a chance to finish my latest book, and I have a few minutes at work today to write about it, so here goes.

I've just finished reading Three Cups of Tea. The story in the book is right up the alley of this blog, so I guess it's no surprise to say that I loved it. To give a quick summary of the story, the co-author/subject of the book, Greg Mortenson, goes on an expedition to climb K2. On the way back down, having failed to reach the summit, Mortenson accidentally wanders away from his guide and stumbles into a tiny village in the mountains of northern Pakistan. After the villagers nurse him back to health, Mortenson goes on a tour of the village and is shocked to see the children gathered in an open field, scratching their lessons in the dirt with sticks, with not a teacher to be found. He promises to come back and build them a school.

The journey that follows is inspiring. One school project turns into a half dozen, and then a dozen, and so on, all in rural villages in Pakistan. As the book concludes, Mortenson is in post-Taliban Afghanistan starting to plan for a whole new series of schools there. As I got to know Mortenson through the book, I found myself in awe that someone could so selflessly, and even naively, accomplish so much good in the world. The world would be a much better place if there were more of him.

The overall message of the book is a simple one. The antidote to extremism is not violence but education. If we help to provide a secular, modern education to the children of the world, we are cutting off the ready supply of converts to extremist ideologies. If we want to be safer here in America, we need to provide social services, education above all, to children around the world. We will be much safer if we are loved for our good works, rather than despised for the death and destruction we cause. The chapters surrounding the events of September 11th and Mortenson's response to them are particularly moving. I highly recommend this book!

Next up: Watership Down
It's time for a re-read again. Watership Downwas my summer reading going into seventh grade. My mom made reference to it while the family was gathered over the Fourth of July weekend, and I realized I didn't remember almost anything about it, other than it's about rabbits. That's a good sign that I should pick it up again. Hopefully I will enjoy it as much now as I did twenty or so years ago.

Posts about previous titles:
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My Five Favorite Books of All Time

This post by fellow edublogger The Scholastic Scribe reminds me that I have promised on couple of occasions to post my top five books list. Now that we are into summer reading season, it seems like a good time to follow through. I have previously written about the books I think students should read in school. These books are my personal favorites, and not necessarily things I would require in school.

One Hundred Years of Solitude
I know a lot of avid readers who have found this book too much to get though, but every time I read it, I find something new to love about it. It is one of those books that contains something to satisfy every part of my love of reading, and the prose is just magical, even in translation. If I was trapped on a desert island with only one book, this would be it.

Midnight's Children
For me, Salman Rushdie is the best author writing in English right now, and this is his greatest work. Winner of the Booker of Bookers as the best book to win that award in the first 25 years of its existence, it tells the story of the 1,001 children born between midnight and 1:00 on the night of India's independence from Britain, each born with a magical ability; and especially of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight, whose ability is to communicate telepathically with the other 1,000 children. It's another one of those something for everyone kind of books.

The Lord of the Rings
Long before Peter Jackson made them hip, I grew up on the ultimate fantasy nerd classics. I first read these books starting back in elementary school, and have long since lost track of the number of times I have read them. My best association with them is reading them aloud in the car to pass the time as three friends and I drove through much of Italy, Germany and France over a two week period back in grad school. The fact that we were still friends after that many hours in a Ford Focus is a testament to the power of fiction.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
My mom gave me this book this year for Christmas after hearing Junot Diaz interviewed on NPR. Somehow she thought that a book written in a mix of English, Spanish and Spanglish (yes it's a different thing from the first two) about a hopelessly romantic, nerdy kid who loves Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord of the Rings would resonate with me. She was right. Winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, this is one of the few books I read before it won a major award.

A Prayer for Owen Meany
A small kid who speaks only in capital letters, a love/hate relationship with the game of baseball, life in a New England boarding school, and a narrator who has moved to Canada, but can't break his addiction to ranting about American politics, what more could you ask for. I first read Owen Meany in high school, and it's been up at the top of my list ever sense.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Ideal Class: World Literature "Transloosely Literated"

If I could teach absolutely anything, I would love to teach a senior English class in world literature in translation. It would blend together my loves of languages and of literature, as well as my general belief that education should serve to expand the world view of students.

One of the major themes of the class would be the challenges presented by translation--the ways in which perfect translations are impossible and all translators are always making their own choices about the works. I would show the funniest scene from Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray is being instructed by the Japanese director of the commercial he has flown to Tokyo to shoot. The director talks and talks, but when the interpreter translates it into English it comes out as just a few words. The scene is Bill Murray at his best.

I would also pick a page or a paragraph from a famous work--Don Quixote comes to mind--and present multiple translations of the same material, in order to talk about the places where different choices were made.

And now I would have the students read this piece from Sunday's NYT Book Review. A classic!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Guest Post: Five Books I've Loved Teaching

The Five Books theme continues to generate a lot of dialogue. I'm happy today to have the second ever guest post to this blog. Today's guest poster is not only an experienced English teacher, but is also the proud mom of the author of the first guest post ever on this blog.

In September 2008, I will begin my 39th year in education. I’ve been teaching English grades 6 – 12 all this time, and I’m happy to respond to Jeff’s blog.

Five texts I’ve loved teaching:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
High schoolers of all ethnicities presented with black lit., often appreciate, but don’t always “relate.” Ralph Ellison’s genius was that his prose style allows students to get inside the protagonist, who begins as a student himself and is desperate to get ahead. He’s thwarted left, right and center, ending, up living in a basement with a recording of “Am I Blue” (you can get a cd of it and play in class), busily screwing hundreds of light bulbs on the floor, ceiling and walls to rip off the electric company. I have had many students who have been shaken by this novel, some of them learning for the first time about black on black betrayal. Discussion leads to lessons in social history.

Julius Caesar William Shakespeare
I love to guide my seventh graders’ first reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Seventh graders – who knows more about stabbing one another in the back than seventh graders during the turning point in middle school where they break into the cruelest of mobs/gangs/packs, feeding on the souls of kids who were their buddies in elementary school with.
Antony’s principles are not as familiar to many of the kids. Close reading draws out the merits of keeping faith and loyality, and we get into talks about ethics, “mean girls” and bullies.

Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky
By the tenth grade, most students are excited about having their philosophical discussions. Some of them posture and pose, while others grapple with valid pros and cons and articulating difficult concepts. Crime and Punishmentis perfect for giving students meat to chew, debate and write about.

Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
Students learn the painful lesson that, as the famous line from the play goes, attention must be paid. Dramatic tragic hero since the advent of the common man in the U.S.A., Willy Lowman, is a failure in the eyes of almost everyone in the play, and certainly in those wallowing in our neo-gilded age. Students have trouble seeing the nobility in Willy, seeing why his wife knows that attention must be paid even to those who hit the sidewalk and slug it out in the work-a-day world everyday, believing in a personal code of responsibility, dedication and old fashioned ethics that need to be resurrected.

Waiting for Godot -Jean Paul Sartre
Why go on when you can’t? There is no help. There is no reason. Teenagers can connect with this concept, but they can’t so readily relate to Didi and GoGo’s “I can’t go on. I can’t go on. Let’s go on.” Existential as it’s themes are, Waiting for Godot demonstrates that we are not alone, but, in fact we are. Recognize it and, with the knowledge, find a way to deal.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Starting about a month before I published my first post for this blog, I began archiving articles and blog posts that I thought might some day inspire a post. I didn't know at the beginning how much I would have to say about starting a school, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a catalog of ideas ready to go, just in case I developed a case of writer's block. Generally, when I see something that interests me and seems vaguely relevant to the topic of schools, I email it to myself, and label it for future use. At this point, I have over a hundred articles and blog posts awaiting my attention in my gmail account.

Among the articles I've been waiting to write something about is Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer Prize winning feature from The Washington Post. If you haven't read it before, you should stop reading this right now and follow the link. You should experience his article and the accompanying video clips first hand. I found it to be a fascinating and moving piece.

To sum it up briefly, Weingarten convinced world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell to play the roll of a busker in Washington D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza metro station, just to see if anyone would realize what they were experiencing. The basic answer is no. Other than one amateur violinist, a woman who had just seen Bell in concert and recognized him, and a young boy who had to be dragged away by his mother, no one stopped to listen. Bell barely made enough money for a cup of coffee.

On a couple of occasions, I have started posts relating to this article, mostly focusing on the wonder of the young boy in contrast to the hurrying adults all around him, arguing that schools should do everything in their power to preserve and encourage this sense of fascination with the world. I never quite got the post finished, or it didn't quite fit in with the other things I was writing about, so I kept leaving it for another day.

Then yesterday, my wife forwarded me this Weingarten article from this Sunday's Post. It turns out Weingarten's fascinating social experiment had been tried and written about more than 75 years earlier for the Chicago Evening Post with almost exactly the same results. In the most bizarre of coincidences, not only did both violinists play two of the same pieces for their street performances, but for a period of about ten years, Joshua Bell played the exact same Stradivarius used by Jacques Gordon 75 years before (The Red Violin anyone?).

I write about this here, because I think there is a lesson in the way Weingarten handles the discovery that his his Pulitzer Prize winning article, surely one of the proudest accomplishments of his professional life, is not quite as original as he had believed. Instead of burying the story, or writing a defensive piece all about how he still deserves credit for his great idea, he writes a very humorous and humble piece, poking fun at his own pride in his originality. He points out that the internet, not any intrinsic differences between the two pieces, is largely responsible for the enormous success of his article in comparison to the immediately forgotten 1930 version. He revels with the rest of us in the bizarre coincidences between the two stories.

There are many teachable moments out there in the world, and this is a great one. I would present the students with a hypothetical situation, maybe translated to the world of science, where publishing original ideas if of such crucial importance. They have researched and written an article. All of the work is their own, but as the article is going to press, they discover that someone else has published something very similar before. What would they do? I think it would lead to a fascinating conversation about originality and who ideas belong to. Any chance for students to really engage with an ethical dilemma is a good thing.

In Weingarten's place, what would you have done?

Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Camp: Making the Rules

Many of the things that make my former summer camp so unique have been a part of the camp essentially from its beginning. The two things I have talked about so far, appreciations and comfort and caring, are both aspects of the camp that I remember vividly from my days as a camper. One significant aspect of the camp that arrived between my time as a camper and my return as a counselor many years later was the camp constitution.

Schools and other programs for kids have a wide variety of approaches to setting the rules and getting kids to follow them, and no one way is perfect or appropriate for every situation, but I really like the way we went about creating the constitution. It was a multi-day process, and limited time spent on other activities during that time, but I think the rewards more than justified the time spent.

The first step was to get the kids thinking about the idea of community in general, and their place in various communities in particular. Each camper was given a badge, a circular piece of paper divided into three wedges, with space for their name in the middle. They were asked to think of three communities they were a part of. The counselors coached them through some possibilities: their school, their family, their sports teams, etc.. Then they were asked to think of a positive attribute that they brought to each of those communities, maybe something they did to be helpful at home or to be friendly at school. Once they had thought of their three attributes, they drew a picture in each section of the circle. Once completed, this badge represented them as a member of the new camp community that was re-created each summer.

Step two was to start coming up with the rules. They did this in small groups, so there was an opportunity to discuss and refine their ideas. One of the keys was that each rule needed to be phrased as a positive action. They had to say, "Respect other people's belongings," instead of, "Don't steal," or something similar.

Once the various groups had their suggested rules, the whole camp would come together to decide what should be included in the final draft. The rules were read out, and the campers were asked to raise any objections. The counselors leading the discussion were careful to steer the conversation toward objections to the ideas, not the wording. The idea was to build general consensus. At the end, everyone would make some symbolic sign of agreement (usually a hand motion with some silly sound effect) chosen by the kids. The final step was to put all the agreed upon rules onto a giant sheet of paper, and to attach the kid's badges to the paper as symbols of their role in the camp community.

Those of you who have been following along with these camp related posts will begin to see what I meant about certain cult-like, or at least ritualistic, aspects of the camp. But, having seen it in action, I have to say that this approach to creating the camp constitution was an incredibly powerful tool. When there was an problem with one of the kids, it was very effective to be able to remind him about the constitution discussion and why it was that the camp had chosen to include certain rules. It was like putting a judo move on a kid who was all prepared to get yelled at, and suddenly found himself explaining to you why what he did was wrong.

As with many of the things I talk about in this blog, I'm not a big believer in the idea that there is one and only one way to do things. When something seems to work, I look for the essential element that is making it work, and think about how that piece could be adapted to many different situations. In this case, I think the essential element comes from giving the kids a chance to help make the rules, and in doing so really think about their purpose. If the rules are something they have agreed to, and even helped create, they are much more likely to see the point in following them. It becomes not just about staying out of trouble, but about behaving as a responsible member of a community.

What effective ways of creating/enforcing the rules have you come across?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Camp: Appreciations

Last week I mentioned that a lot of my inspiration for this blog comes from my time as a camper and counselor at a summer camp back home in Massachusetts. I described the somewhat cult-like devotion that the camp has from many of the campers and staff who have spent time there. This devotion is cultivated in the many community building activities built into the structure of the camp. The one I wanted to talk about today is appreciations.

The camp runs two four week sessions over the course of the summer. At the end of each session are a variety of activities designed to bring closure to the session, including an open house for parents to come and see what their children have been working on all summer, and a sleepover where the kids get to go for a night swim and stay up late watching movies. In addition, over the course of the last week, the kids do appreciations.

During the morning and afternoon circle times, the kids go to sit one by one in a chair that has been magically transformed into the Appreciation Chair. While there, they call on volunteers from the group to appreciate them, which is to say something positive about them. The kids are coached to make their appreciations meaningful. "I appreciate you because you're nice," is a bad appreciation, while, "I appreciate you because on the first day of camp, when I didn't know anyone, you came up and asked if I wanted to join your game," is a good appreciation. This is a situation where having older, experienced campers mixed in with the younger ones helps to set the tone, and to give good examples of how it's all supposed to work.

Again, as with many of the community building aspects of the camp, it can appear a little cheesy, but as an established routine, it is incredibly powerful. It is very unusual in life for someone of any age to be openly and publicly complimented by their peers. We don't often hear about the positive ways we have affected other people. Appreciations give kids a chance to see themselves in a whole new, and entirely positive, light.

One of the pieces we have to coach the kids through, is to recognize that being complimented is an inherently uncomfortable activity. We aren't used to it, and we often don't know how to respond. The kids are reminded to say thank you after each appreciation as a sign that they have heard and accepted the compliment.

The exact format of these appreciations might not work in every environment, but the idea is a powerful one that can and should be adapted to many situations. Kids spend a lot of time telling each other how they are different (read worse) than everyone else. Wouldn't it be nice if they had a regular opportunity to tell each other the ways in which they are great?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Three Cups of Tea

I just finished reading True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I came upon it through my habit of scanning through the lists of award winners on Amazon and picking a couple that seem interesting. In this case, Carey won the Booker Prize for his novel about the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

The premise of the book is that Kelly has written the story of his life to his young daughter in order to explain himself to her, so that she will not believe the lies that established society has spread about him, but will know that her father was a good man doomed by circumstances. In order to create the voice of the uneducated bushman, Carey forgoes the use of much of the punctuation, which takes some adjusting to at first, and would be a great project to teach kids how proper punctuation makes communication clearer; but once the reader gets into the flow of the text, the book is absolutely mesmerizing.

As a protagonist, Ned Kelly is always appealing, always believable, and easy to empathize with. The story of how his life is directed by the poverty into which he is born, and by the corruption that surrounds him, makes for great tragedy. Before we ever start reading Kelly's manuscript, we are shown his eventual capture by the police, and the rest of the novel is like a runaway train, accelerating towards that moment. I finished the book wishing I could reach in and redirect the path somewhere along the line, so that Kelly could find the redemption he is seeking. It's a great book and I recommend it highly.

Next up: Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
When I first sent out emails telling all my friends about this blog, my friend Georgia responded that the project was very "Three Cups of Tea" of me. At the time, I was vaguely aware that it was a reference to one of those books that educated teachers all knew about, but I didn't know much more than that. A few weeks ago, my school had its spring book fair, and there it was with the other books for parents and teachers. I bought it, trusting Georgia's taste in books. I'm sure I'll find some blog related inspiration in its pages.

Posts about previous titles:
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Monday, June 23, 2008

Denver Catches the Build a School Spirit

NPR is in the middle of an extended series on innovative schools from around the country. Friday's story about a school in Denver that shut its doors for a year in order to create an entirely new culture at the school contained the following line:

For teachers, there is nothing more exciting than being able to start over and build a school on your own without having somebody just hand it to you.

Besides being flattered by the subtle nod to this blog, I think the quote makes a hugely important point. At a time when there is so much talk in the education world about attracting and keeping great teachers, a lot of it comes down to this idea. If you want smart creative people to go into teaching and stay there, you need to give them the opportunity to be smart and creative in their work. They need to have an important role in designing curriculum and building the culture of the school. If they do not, they won't feel nearly the same attachment to the place, and no matter how strong their altruistic belief in the importance of their profession, they will eventually burn out and move on to something more engaging to their intellect.

For me, the great attraction of private schools over public schools has always been the freedom to create curriculum. Many of the classes I have taught have been entirely or partially of my own design, an opportunity I will have again this summer as I prepare for my new school in the fall. While I would certainly keep teaching if someone took that creativity out of my hands, my enthusiasm for it would fade just that little bit.

In addition to fueling my own enthusiasm, that creative freedom makes me much more able to respond to the needs of my students. I can see what is working and what is not, and make adjustments as the year goes along. It is much more personalized for them, as well as for me. Each lesson is something that has been created by me just for my students. It makes the classroom a much more personal place, something that can only benefit the education that takes place there.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Summer Camp: Comfort and Caring

By a quick count, I think I have either attended or worked at six or seven different summer camps over the course of my life. Of all of them, one in particular has played a central role in my development as a person, as a teacher, and as a thinker about education. I first attended the camp (as always, I will avoid accurate names) in the summer between fourth and fifth grades. From that summer on, I and/or one of my siblings was a camper, counselor, or administrator there continuously until last summer, when for the first time in our adult lives, neither my sister nor I were working there, overall a streak of 22 years.

Among other significant life events that occurred at this camp, I met my wife while we were both working there in the summer of 2000, eight years ago this weekend. Since my wife's younger sister has been on staff at the camp for the past two summers, I count the family streak as still active at 24 years and counting.

While this family devotion is extreme, it is not actually exceptional. Many other people and families have similar stories and streaks, a fact that gives the camp a certain cult-like aura that many newcomers find off-putting at first. My wife often tells the story of her first day of staff orientation, at the end of which she went home wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into.

There are many aspects of the camp that lead to this bizarre devotion, and over the course of the summer I will spend some time on many of them, because I think if schools could cultivate similar feelings of attachment in their students, the job of education would be much easier. The most important of them, though, is that, more than any other environment for children that I have ever been a part of, this camp gives children a safe place to be their true selves. I have spoken with many young staff and campers who spend all year being miserable at school, feeling trapped in a place that doesn't understand them, waiting for summer to come so they can go out and find themselves again.

Again, there are many pieces in place to create this welcoming environment, but the first of them happens almost the moment that the campers arrive each day. Every morning, camp starts in a circle. The circle is a camp motif that is reinforced in many ways over the course of a day and the summer. Each circle is a mixed aged group, from fourth through eighth grades, plus counselors of a variety of ages and life stages.

Circle time begins with Comfort and Caring, a time for those who want to to share whatever is on their mind that morning. Usually it is light-hearted--stories of baseball games played, or new Pokemon cards acquired--but sometimes there is more vital information shared--a beloved pet passed away, a best friend gone to overnight camp for the summer. In addition to giving everyone the chance to share, and to feel like the events of their lives are important to other people, it is also a chance for the kids to get off their chests whatever thing has been occupying them. Once relieved of that burden, they are more ready to focus on the tasks of the day.

It can be a little hokey, and the oldest kids often roll their eyes at the prospect, but how much happier and more productive would we adults be if our days began with the chance to share with our colleagues the things that were exciting or depressing us that day, to ask for a little leeway when we missed our morning coffee, or to feel like our accomplishments were celebrated by the people with whom we spend our days. A little bit of hokey is not such a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Celtics 131 Lakers 92

Apologies for a completely off topic post today, but it had to be done.

I am from Massachusetts, about half an hour outside of Boston, and I love watching sports. Above all else, I am a Red Sox fan, but I have a place in my heart for all Boston teams. I reached prime sports-watching age in the mid 1980s, which left its indelible mark on my feelings about sports in general, and about my Boston teams specifically.

I remember exactly where I was, eleven years old and full of hope, when the ball rolled through Buckner's legs. I watched the Bears destroy the Patriots at my friend Andy's house. I learned through hard lessons that being a Boston sports fan is to live a life of heartache and suffering.

The one exception to that during my childhood was the Celtics. My family and I had dinner in the restaurant that K.C. Jones and Bobby Orr used to own together on the night the Celtics won their sixteenth championship. I remember watching in awe as Robert Parish walked through the restaurant to some back-room celebration, ducking under the seven foot door frames. As we finished dinner and walked out to the parking lot, the rest of the team started to trickle in. They were literally larger than life. Who knew then that it would be another fifteen years of suffering before another Boston team won a championship?

The life of a Boston sports fan has changed a lot in the last eight years. From the moment Adam Vinatieri kicked that ball through the uprights to beat the Rams, Boston fans haven't known quite what to think of themselves. Three Superbowl wins (so close to a fourth), two World Series championships (without the world ending or hell freezing over), and now, twenty two years later, the Celtics are back with their seventeenth championship.

It's not the same Boston I grew up with, full of heartbreak and disappointment, but I gotta say, I could really get used to this.

Go Celtics!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How Summer Camp Made Me Fall In Love With Teaching

Today was the first day of the summer program at my school. On the whole things went pretty smoothly, at least as far as I know at the moment. Unlike most summer camps, our students come in only for the classes that they are interested in. This leads to a rather complex pick up and drop off system with four distinct times for dropping the kids off, and then four more partially overlapping times for pick up. I call it a win that on the first day all the kids arrived and departed successfully and safely, especially with a thunder storm rolling in on us as the last students departed.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that working at a summer camp during college played a big part in my eventual decision to become a teacher. I thought today I would share the story because it is representative to me of what makes teaching so rewarding.

I was teaching Red Cross swimming as part of the sports camp at my former high school. My classes were small, usually about four or five kids of a similar level. My job in the four week session was to move them as far along towards their next swimming level as possible.

One of my classes was a group of girls going into third and fourth grades. They were relatively advanced for that age group, and were working towards their Level 5 card. In order to pass they had to demonstrate competence with the breaststroke (among other things).

One of the better overall swimmers in the group was a very outgoing and friendly girl, we'll call her Colleen. Colleen had crawl stroke down pat. She could do the elementary backstroke. She could tread water, and did a very confident forward dive into the deep end of the pool. But breaststroke was beyond her. We practiced the movements on land. We practiced the kick with a kick board. She could do all the pieces, but when it came time to put it all together in the water, Colleen just couldn't get it right. She just flopped around awkwardly, unable to move herself through the water. It was clear that she was going to finish the summer without getting her Level 5 card.

Then, on the second to last day of camp, Colleen hopped into the pool, and swam the breaststroke from one side to the other, perfectly and without stopping. Somehow, magically and overnight, Colleen had figured it out.

What amazed me at the time, and started me on the road to the career I love so much, is how happy it made me to watch her swim. She had worked so hard at it all summer, and all that work had paid off just in time. That joy in another person's accomplishment was a feeling I wanted to have again, and fortunately it is one I have had many times since.

There have been many frustrating days in my teaching career so far. I have sat with a pile of partially graded tests in front of me, thinking that if one more high school kid tried to tell me that Puerto Rico was a country in Europe I would quit right then and there. But overall, it is the students like Colleen, and the moments like that one watching her swim the breaststroke, that stick with me the most. As long as they bring me joy, I will continue to enjoy calling myself a teacher.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer camp is as American as...well, summer camp.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my wife and I have spent most of the last three years living abroad, first in England and then in The Gambia. While in the U.K., I worked as an English instructor, teaching conversational English to businesspeople from all over the world, more than two dozen countries in all. This has led to a lot of time spent explaining America--or things American--to people who have seen the U.S. in movies, on TV, in the news, and even through a tourist's eyes, but still don't know quite what to make of it. I have tried to explain the rules of baseball and American football, shared bewilderment over how we possibly re-elected George Bush, and reassured people that neither Baywatch nor Beverly Hills 90210 is a realistic representation of life in America. Of all the topics I have had to cover again and again, though, the one that is met with the most confusion and wonder is the peculiarly American institution of summer camp.

The idea that children would escape from school, only to go straight into another environment entirely structured for them by adults, is completely bizarre to people from most other countries. It takes a lot of explaining, especially to get across the variety of things that we refer to as camp: overnight camps, sports camps, day camps, etc.. Summer in other countries is for vacationing with your family and for doing whatever you please at home. The idea of summer camp is so foreign that the Spanish language doesn't have an appropriate translation. The closest is campamento, which literally means something more like encampment.

I should be in as good a position as anyone to explain this whole summer camp thing. Not only have I had many of the usual childhood experiences with camps--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I have spent most of my summers, from college through my teaching career, working at a variety of camps. In fact, my experiences during my college summers teaching swimming lessons at my former high school played a big role in my decision to become a teacher. And yet, I don't know if I ever really managed to explain to all those non-Americans what camp is all about.

Today begins yet another summer working at a camp, in this case the summer program at the school where I've been teaching since January. It seems appropriate, then, to spend some time this summer blogging about the educating that takes place while the school doors are closed. Many of my own ideas about what an ideal school would look like were formed during my various summer jobs, so I won't be wandering far from the original purpose of this blog. Maybe along the way, I'll find just the right words to explain the peculiarly American phenomenon that is summer camp.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Computers Are Very Helpful If You Know How To Use Them

This week I have at least some responsibilities to three different jobs. First, there is my teaching job at my current school, where we are working through final faculty meetings. Then, there is my new school for the fall, who have asked me to come in tomorrow and get my bearings, pick up my books for next year, and start thinking about a curriculum development project for next year. The big one, though, is my role as Assistant Director for the summer program at my current school. Staff orientation is Friday afternoon, and the kids arrive on Monday morning, which gives me about 28 more hours to learn everything about a summer camp I've never worked at before. After that, I'm supposed to be one of the two most knowledgeable people about it. So, what did I spend my day doing yesterday: sorting t-shirts.

Let me explain.

On the first day of camp, every student gets a t-shirt with the camp logo on it. In the past, the t-shirts have always been distributed during the kids' first class. This is straightforward enough, except that, unlike other summer programs where all of the kids show up in the morning and stay all day, we have rolling attendance, depending on what classes each child is taking. They may be enrolled in anywhere from one to four classes per week, and are only required to attend the part of the day when their class is in session. This creates many logistical issues, but at 1:00 this afternoon, the one I was worried about was t-shirts.

About 80% of the campers have a class during the first period. I just had to find who the other 20% were and figure out when to get them their shirts. I decided that there must be an easy way to get our database to give me all of the relevant information, so that all I would have to do was make a quick count and start sorting shirts. Two problems: first, we are running the database on aged laptops with a weak wireless connection, a bad combination for the high powered online database we use; and second, I had never even logged into the database before this morning.

It took me about three hours to get a printout of all the class rosters for the first week with the kids' t-shirt sizes and class meeting times. Most of that time was spent learning to navigate the database and get it to produce whatever reports I wanted (and restarting it when it froze, and restarting it again when it froze again). It was good practice at a skill I needed to develop, and not quite as much of a waste of time as it sounds, but it was still three hours.

I know this has been said many times, but computers really are great time savers, once you know how to use them. That learning curve, though, can be rough. I know that the time I spent today will pay off later when I have other, more critical things to do with the database, but I spent most of the afternoon feeling like I was running on a treadmill. I wonder how long it would have taken me, without the help of the database, to do all the work I tried to get the computer to do. I bet today I could have done it faster. Hopefully, next time the computer will win.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Are We Here?

I have some more thoughts today from our week of end-of-year faculty meetings. Monday morning's meeting was a very big picture kind of affair. That was just fine with me. Since I will be at a different school in the fall, philosophical discussions about teaching are much more interesting to me than nuts and bolts about next school year. After fifteen minutes to journal about the year (my thoughts here), our division head went up to the board and wrote the question, "Why are we here?" in big purple letters. The brainstorming session that followed was wide ranging, and often deteriorated into discussion of people's pet concerns, but generally provided an interesting take on what it is that a school is supposed to do. Here is a selection of the answers that we came up with. I present them without comment for now. Many of them are worthy of a post, or a couple of posts, of their own.

Why Are We Here?

  • for the children
  • to set an example/model behavior
  • to learn
  • to share a passion
  • to nurture
  • to make a difference
  • to teach problem solving
  • to make the children responsible and polite
  • to be aware of students' lives outside of school
  • friendship/to support each other
  • to teach the parents
  • to build a sense of community
  • to set consistent expectations
  • to take time for teachable moments
  • to give consequences and to follow through
  • to supervise/ensure safety of children
  • to share
  • to better serve the invisible students

I'll come back to many of these in future posts, but for now I'll just leave them out there for you to think about.

Anything you would add/remove from the list?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

End of Year Reflections

Now that graduation is over and all the kids are gone, it is time for one last week of faculty meetings and cleanup before summer officially begins. It is time to tie up loose ends, reflect on the past year, and start getting ready to do it even better next year. I would be really looking forward to vacation, but my summer job starts this week, too, so I have a few more weeks to go before the Fourth of July break.

Monday morning's meeting started with an opportunity to reflect journal style on the past year and then to discuss our thoughts as a group. While I am still in that mindset, I thought I would continue with some of those ideas here.

School didn't begin for me until the end of January this year. My wife and I had been living abroad for two and a half years, first in the U.K., then in the Gambia. In England I worked teaching English to adults, and in the Gambia I played a lot of volleyball and ultimate Frisbee in between frustrating efforts at writing the novel that has been bouncing around in my head for years now. We returned to the U.S. in mid-December, and on January 1 moved here to the D.C. area. By the end of the month, I had found a job as a long-term Spanish substitute at the K-8 school in northern Virginia where I an now just finishing the year.

When I had my first class back on the Tuesday following Martin Luther King Day, it had been almost 32 months since I had last been in a classroom. To add to the challenge, my class load included at least one section each of first through sixth grades. I had one year of previous experience with fifth and sixth grades, but my other seven years of teaching experience were all at the high school level. It's hard to even begin to explain the difference between teaching AP Spanish Literature and first grade. There are almost no transferable skills between them.

Needless to say, the first few weeks felt like being a rookie teacher again, and that is essentially what I was. I particularly remember my first class with the first graders. I had a lesson plan that I thought was age appropriate, sufficiently varied to keep their interest, and active enough to get them involved. Every activity fell flat, and I found myself in that horrible position of having half an eye on the clock, just praying that I would live through the next twenty minutes to fight another day.

Eventually, with a lot of help from my very supportive and welcoming colleagues in the language department, I got my teaching legs again, and started to get the hang of seven and eight year olds. One of our housemates from England, who is also back in D.C. now, mentioned to my wife a few weeks ago that I seemed much happier now than I ever had in England. It's true, and the main cause is that I am a teacher again. Being a teacher is a huge part of my identity, and I feel much more myself now that when people ask me what I do, I can once again say, "I'm a Spanish teacher."

In the fall I will be changing schools, returning to my comfort zone as a high school teacher and a volleyball coach. I am very much looking forward to it, but I am also extremely grateful to my current school for giving me the chance to get back in the classroom. I believe in the philosophy that we are what we do, and I am very happy to call myself a teacher again.