The Language of Learning

Before I was a teacher, I never realized how many revisions my thoughts would go through to morph real-life feedback into report card feedback. Each time I sit down to complete grades, I start with what I really think. (For example: Your child is the best human I have ever met and can I just have him to keep at the end of the year? Or: I am not sure what planet your child hails from, but it is almost certainly not one currently orbiting Sol.) Then, I have to mash it through the euphemism grinder until it becomes something a family member can hear. (For example: Your child is consistently a model to those around him. Or: Your child is working to stay attuned to the class’s activities.)

Each time I do this, it reminds me of a section from William Zinsser’s excellent On Writing Well. (Disclosure: I own three separate editions.) In it, he talks about helping a group of principals “de-jargonize” the language of their communication to parents. In one instance, they reform “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria” into “At the end of the year we will evaluate our progress.” Whenever I read this section, I am inspired. I, too, will write with clarity and poise. My students’ parents will understand exactly what I mean. No need for jargon! How refreshing!

I accomplish this goal for the first half of the year, sending home neatly written newsletters that use Anglo-Saxon words and bullet points. Then I hit the reality of report cards. I face writing 30 comments each for 25 kids. I think of the hours spent raising eyebrows at particular repeat offenders, the hours that have etched a permanent horizontal line across my forehead. I think of the number of times this month alone I have said, “What better choice could you make right now?” And I buckle.

This is the one time during the year that my writing reverts to jargon. So, in case you are not a teacher, or are just starting your own English-to-Report-Card journey, here are some sample Report Card comments alongside their English equivalents.

Report Card English
Cathryn is still working to improve her control over her voice and body. Cathryn could not sit still and be quiet for three minutes if her life literally depended on it.
Sofia consistently resolves peer conflicts with respect and maturity. I’m pretty sure your kid is Kofi Annan in disguise.
Samuel sometimes struggles to use science materials responsibly during experiments. In a typical incident this week, Samuel stabbed himself with a straw to “see what it would do.” It stabbed him. That was what it did.
Antoine fluidly incorporates new skills into his reading responses. If I had a class of Antoines I would die of happiness.
Imani has shown some improvement in her use of standard conventions. Imani seemed surprised to learn that sentences ought to include punctuation, but will now, under duress, sprinkle one or two periods through each page of writing.
Javier shows excellent consistency and attention to precision in math. Javier saves me a ton of time because I don’t even have to check his work anymore. Also, he should probably be in college.

 

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Wait for It

In my first year of teaching, the anonymous pen behind Love, Teach basically kept me alive. Despite knowing nothing about her, I felt deeply connected to her. Her struggles were my struggles; her triumphs my triumphs. I loved reading about her ridiculous students, bizarre workplace issues, and fatigue-induced moments of insanity. Then, a few weeks ago, she published a post titled Why Don’t I Matter to You, Congress?: A Plea from a Teacher. In it, she discusses Congress’s nonexistent action to protect our nation’s children and teachers from gun violence. And in it, I once again found that she and I were of a mind.

Two years ago, someone came through the school and put large printed numbers on the inside of the windows, facing out. 110, 112, 114.

This is so that when police come, they can communicate about which room the shooter is in from the outside.

Twice a year, our school is required to complete a “Code Red” drill. The last time we had a Code Red drill, the students did everything according to plan. The ones closest to the windows pulled down the shades. All the rest rose calmly from their seats, walked to the corner farthest from the door and windows, and huddled in a nook between the wall and a filing cabinet.

I stepped into the hallway, scanned for kids to shepherd into my room, then locked my door and turned out the lights. I joined my students in the corner, crouched between them and the door, willing them into silence with stern looks. We breathed, and stilled.

We practiced waiting, trembling in the dark, for someone to shoot us.

I am fierce in defense of my students. Once, on a field trip, an adult not related to our trip screamed at a group of my kids for being too loud in a public bathroom. Before I even knew what I was doing, I found myself between this man and my students, forcing him to engage me, to talk to me, and herding him away. Although I did not touch him in any way, I felt the muscles of my body tense, ready to spring if he made so much as a movement towards my children.

When we practice waiting to be shot underneath our autumn leaf displays, next to our hopes and dreams for the school year, I rehearse how I will die for my students. I will rise throwing a chair, then dive for the shooter’s legs. I will raise my hands, pleading, to draw his attention away from them. I will tell him my name, tell him about my family in an attempt to appeal to his conscience. I will stand between him and my children, though of course bullets fired at the distance from my door to the corner will easily pass through me and into them.

Three weeks ago, one of my students came up to me. “What if there’s a person trying to attack us in the building?” she asked.

Nine-year-olds are masters of the non-sequitur what-if, so I am used to brushing these questions aside. I almost told her that there wasn’t, and not to worry about it, when I looked down at her face. Her eyes were red.

I crouched beside her. “There isn’t anyone trying to attack us,” I told her. “Sometimes people have things wrong with their brains, and that makes them violent. If that happens near us, it’s my job to keep you safe. That is the part of my job I take most seriously. I will keep you safe. Every teacher in this building has that same job. You are safe here.”

She started crying. “But what if something happens? What if I’m in the bathroom or getting a drink? What if there isn’t a teacher?”

And so I found myself telling this child, over and over, that she was safe, that all teachers would check to make sure children were in locked classrooms, that she would never be left alone to face someone who intended to kill her.

Even a few years ago, I would have told her that no one would attempt to kill her. I can’t do that anymore. As of October 1, there had been 45 school shootings this year in the United States. As of that same date, 274 days into the year, 295 mass shootings had claimed 380 lives and injured over 1,000 more. After reassuring my student, I found myself nearly in tears as well, wondering why, in the US in 2015, I can’t tell a child with reasonable certainty that no one will try to kill her.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. I’m not an expert on mental health or gun regulation or security. I’m a teacher.

I do know I want to live in a world where children don’t have to practice, twice a year, their voices and bodies silent, waiting for someone to kill them. And so I appeal to the humanity of those in power. Please. Let us begin again to raise children who are safe each day as they arrive to learn.

Extra Credit

My favorite lessons are nowhere in the district curriculum. (Don’t tell anyone.) Each year, I pull out some things to teach not because they are required or standards-aligned, but because they are really, truly, deeply interesting.

We learn about phenology, Native American burial practices, and why and how Western time became organized. We explore basic engineering and how to take field notes. We read sonnets and analyze their structure. All of this is great, but my absolute favorite thing to teach is etymology.

Last week, I started by holding up a river stone and asking, “Why do we call this a stone?”

“Because someone else called it a stone,” was the first answer, followed by a hesitant, “English?”

I challenged them. “But why did your parents call it a stone? Who first called it a stone? Do you think someone walked around the world pointing at things, and what she called them is exactly what we call them now?”

Kid curiosity is a powerful thing. Once I asked, they had to know. (Christopher Danielson, on his fantastic blog, refers to this as creating the headache for which only learning can provide relief.) They murmured at each other. For a couple of them, these first few moments were deeply discomfiting. We were about to destabilize something they’ve always taken for granted, and it made them uneasy. But this is the best part about teaching, because learning happens here, in this place where all of a sudden what you know no longer explains the world.

We started with history. I pointed out Europe and sketched a very basic Proto-Indo-European to Germanic to Old English to Old English + French to Middle English to Modern English. “English is a hot mess,” I told them. “It’s Germanic and Italic languages mashed up together. It borrows from practically every major language in the world. There’s a reason you have to spend half an hour every day just learning spelling when kids who learn other languages don’t. But the cool part about it is that if you know where to look, each word has a little history. That’s what we’re going to do in etymology. We’re going to learn the stories of words. And when we’re done, I guarantee you’ll see things in the language you never noticed before.”

“So wait,” said Carlos. His eyes widened. “How do you know where words come from?”

“You trace them back,” I said. “It’s like historical detective work. A lot of words you can recognize. Like in Old English, there’s a word: brōðor. Any guesses what it means?”

“Brother,” one of them said. I could practically see the lightbulbs.

“Or tōð?”

That stumped them until Sara lit up and said, “Tooth!”

“Right on. And some words we use all the time connect to stories or legends.” With that, I gave them one of the best introductions to etymology I’ve found: pulling apart the days of the week. They sat with partners, murmuring over the days. They all found “sun” immediately, of course, and most found “Saturn.” They noticed that each day ended with “day.” When I prompted them to think about what day might pair with Sunday, they chewed on it for a while before noticing “mon” was just “moon” missing an o.

Then, we got to the fun part. “Here’s your hint: the days were named by people who believed in Norse gods,” I told the kids. “We’ve found the sun, the moon, and Saturn. What are the rest?”

They got back to work. Tuesday and Wednesday are tough, but suddenly, Aiden shot up in his chair and yelled “Thor!” Everyone turned to look at him as he explained: “Thursday! It’s for Thor! Thor’s day.”

I picked up my D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. “Now we’re moving.” I showed them the fantastic two-page spread of Norse gods, projecting it up on the screen. “Any other familiar names?”

At this point, rolling along, they identified everything except Wednesday. To be fair, that one’s tough. I explained about Odin and Woden, though, and they eagerly finished their annotations.

“That’s it for today, investigators,” I said. “Pack it in.”

The class dutifully put away their work and lined up for recess. As they stood in line, I eavesdropped on their conversations. Often, this is my best feedback on a lesson: no commentary, and it wasn’t sticky. If they’re still talking about it afterwards, we’ve done something right.

Every one of those kids was talking about the lesson. They shared who they wanted to tell about it. They asked each other questions: What about months? What about words like “yes” and “no”? What about words that are spelled strangely, like rhythm?

The bell rang, and they streamed out to play. I wandered the room tidying, and spent just a moment unhassled by educator evaluation or Common Core Standards or state test scores or school improvement progress. Just a moment loving that every day, I get to broaden minds. I mean really, how amazing is that?

Superheroes

I have, in recent days, been subject to the enthusiastic support of several people who have absolutely no idea what teaching is like.

These people are, besides the kids, the lifeblood of my profession. I’ll take a happy parent over a good score on an Educator Effectiveness quadrant any day. But one of the things that keeps coming up is bothering me. It’s this notion that teachers are superheroes.

We are, of course. But not in the way you’re thinking. Here, for your edification, are a selection of actual teacher superhero alter-egos:

  • Impervious To Vomitus. This was something I absolutely could not handle before becoming a teacher. I was one of those people who saw someone look vaguely ill and ran in the other direction. However, after a particularly virulent stomach virus rampaged through the school last fall, and after escorting the fourth child who had vomited in class to the nurse while holding a trash can in front of her, I realized that I no longer had any meaningful reaction.
  • The Eyebrow. Today, I stopped a kid from running from the other end of the hallway. For real, he took off running, looked up, saw me glaring from fifty feet away, and skidded to the fastest halt I have ever seen.
  • Hmm, the Human Lie Detector. My kids love to try to tell me why their homework isn’t done. They come up with a whole range of sob stories. I especially love the ones who swear up, down, and sideways that they didn’t ever get the homework only to look surprised when I turn it up…in their homework folders. But the best part of this superpower is the ability to know when a kid actually is having a rough time. There’s nothing better than looking a kid in the eye when they’re crying because they haven’t finished an assignment and saying, “It’s okay.”
  • Side-hugger of Steel. My kids this year are huggers. Last year, not so much. I mean, last year I had 6.5 billion boys in my class, so that might have contributed. But this year, you’d better believe those hugs are coming fast and furious. The trouble is, fourth-graders are just about boob-height and indiscriminate about hugging. This superpower allows me to detect a hug coming from any direction and angle my body so that the hugger is met by one arm and a somewhat discouraging hip.
  • The Drafter. I am notorious in certain circles (by which I mean my husband) for meeting people and then basically strong-arming them into coming to talk to my class. I love guest speakers. So far, I have had a police officer, a local actor, several parents with varying skills/professions, a sibling, a representative of a local birding group, a woman who came through a major immigration center, members of the local college athletic program, and more. My motto is, “When in doubt, ask anyway. Possibly with a sighing monologue about how underfunded public education is these days.”
  • The Cross-Examiner. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am a superb detective. No one told me elementary school would be an endless cul-de-sac of he-said-she-said (or as it actually happens at this grade level, he-said-he-said or she-said-she-said-she-said). I love a good mystery, though, and have solved some corkers, like the Case of the I Counted to Twenty But He Didn’t Get Off the Tire Swing, the Evil Pencil Eraser Cap Thief Who Is Definitely Not Just Me Dropping Erasers on the Floor Where the Custodians Throw Them Away at the End of the Day, and best of all, the I Think a Kid Who I Can’t Identify Might Have Been Saying Mean Things About a Third Party I Also Can’t Identify Caper.
  • World’s Greatest Unjammer. If it is jammed, I can fix it. Stapler? No problem. Pencil sharpener? Just give it a few whacks. Photocopier that originally belonged to our Australopithecene ancestors? At this point, it unjams after a stern look. Locker? You just have to know where to kick. Lock? There’s a specific three-jiggle procedure. What I’m saying is I could definitely start a side business fixing stuff broken by enthusiastic misuse by 8- to 10-year-olds.

Basically, your first years of teaching are like being bitten by a radioactive spider while being blasted by gamma rays and experimented on by the military en route from your homeworld of Krypton. It’s quite an adventure.

Back to the Blog

I have a near-embarrassment of time in my second year of teaching. Things that took me hours last year take minutes now. I am home by 4:30 pm. My inbox is clear. My room is tidy. All the work my students have completed – even the inconsequential – has been graded, commented upon, recorded, and returned. I have changed bulletin boards twice. I actually publish the class newsletter. Every parent in a twelve-mile radius apparently wants to volunteer.

Everything about this seems strange, and foreign.

How do I still have the energy to do anything except collapse at the end of the day? How on earth am I thinking about taking on a practicum student the year after next? How have I cooked real food for dinner every night this week?!

They say this thing about gift horses. So I took stock and realized that the one thing I regret about last year is not organizing my thoughts. I took notes, certainly – reflective and procedural, sometimes on Post-Its, sometimes on receipts, mostly crammed into the online program I adapted to the purpose. But the thing I did not do, and the thing I wanted to, was write narrative. Find the moments and write them down. Find the breath, underneath.

The thing about the second year is: you (and by you I mean I) kind of miss (desperately crave) the constant adrenaline rush of that first time through. There’s nothing quite like hanging on by the very tips of your fingernails, eating nothing but Nature Valley granola bars for days at a time, and being very very careful to sneak the month-old ungraded minor assignments out with the afternoon recycling lest some helpful child “fortunately find” the “important papers” you “accidentally put in the trash.”

Basically, last year was more exciting. So, this week, I overhauled a major section of my class management structure.

It all began with Learn Like a PIRATEOne of the key premises of this book – which, I ought to say, made me rethink my life in approximately 15 minutes – is that students should be leading the classroom. Of course, you say. Students should always be directing learning, working collaboratively, and so on.

But no. This book posits that students should actually be leading the classroom. They should have the power to call for silence. They should have the freedom to engage in activities that meet the required ends for the year. They should work collaboratively with not only “good” partners, but also “bad” ones. They should make a lot of noise.

So on Monday, I gave it a whirl. “I’m posting the transition times for the day up on the board,” I told my class at the beginning of the day. “I’m just finding I can’t be as focused on your learning when I’m watching the clock. Won’t you help me by calling the class’s attention when we have two minutes to transition?”

The first transition was about five minutes late. The second was three. By the end of the day, the students were seamlessly, independently transitioning from one activity to the next.

Today, I added a challenge (mostly for myself). “Someone needs to ring the chime that brings us all together at the beginning of the day,” I said. “How are we going to decide who does it?”

Then, I did the hardest thing a teacher can do. I closed my mouth.

The students started by raising their hands and looking at me. This persisted for about fifteen seconds of confusion. Then, they all started talking at once. This took another fifteen seconds or so. Finally, one student raised his hand, called for silence, and said, “I think we need to take turns so that we can hear each other’s ideas.”

And for twenty minutes, that was exactly what they did.

My students, with no input from me, came up with about ten ideas for how to pick the chime ringer, ranging from rock-paper-scissors to an alphabetical list. Once no new ideas were forthcoming, they voted, deciding that the fairest way was to pick sticks. One of them found the cup and chose the ringer for the day. Another student suggested that we keep track of who had already gone so that everyone got a turn. Yet another remembered that we had large paper in a drawer and went to get a sheet, a pencil, and some tape. They wrote the first selectee’s name on the paper and posted it where it is easily visible from our morning circle.

When I rejoined the circle, it was as if they had forgotten I was there. We finished our morning circle routine. A student called for silence, noted that it was time to transition, and directed us back to our desks. Every student got our their materials and got straight to work.

Later that day, as I stood just outside the classroom door dealing with a normal workday issue, I heard from inside the room an insistent “Give me five! Give me five!” The students quieted. The speaker said, “This is your five minute warning. When you’re done, your materials go away.” The students resumed their low murmur of activity. I felt the little thrill of adrenaline, not from desperate clinging to sanity, but from desperate joy.

And I thought: yes.

Oaths

In a conversation the other day, I told a friend I felt like some of the assessments I’m asked to administer make me feel like I’m breaking the teacher’s Hippocratic Oath. Then, in an unrelated email from another friend, I was challenged to write a teacher’s Hippocratic Oath. I figured two unrelated conversations about teachers and teaching and Hippocratic Oaths was basically a sign. So I sat down with a copy of Louis Lasagna’s oath (I am not kidding, that is actually his name) and sketched out one of my own.

It’s not perfect yet. There are bits that are still too doctor-y, and bits that are a little flowery for my tastes.

But it’s a start. An oath. A promise.

***

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant.

I will remember that I teach developing human beings, not behaviors, test scores, or statistics. My ultimate commitment is to the children in my care. Children’s lives are given over to me each day, and it is my solemn duty to protect their security, self-concept, and well-being while providing an environment in which they can flourish.

I will remember that teaching is as much art as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding are the eternal undercurrents of any new technique or technology.

I will respect the wisdom, experience, and hard-won gains of those teachers in whose steps I walk, and will share my knowledge openly and collaboratively with those who follow me.

I will do my utmost to provide each child with an education that allows the child to become a conscious citizen, a flourishing member of society, and a member of the global community. I will love what I teach and pass that love of learning on to my students.

I will provide, with empathy and respect, the educational services that each student needs, regardless of but accounting for race, culture, language, disability, gender, poverty, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.

I will remember that teaching is not simply about delivering content, but also about supporting children to develop emotional, physical, and spiritual resilience. I teach children not only what the world is made of, but how to be whole within it.

I will continue to grow as a teacher, learning new methods, new ways of seeing, and new ways of responding to my students’ needs. I will learn in collaboration with my colleagues.

I will accept that there are many factors in a child’s life outside my control, and that I cannot meet every need at every moment.

I will ensure that my health and stability remain a priority, because in neglecting them I neglect the well-being of the children in my care.

May I always act to preserve the finest traditions of my calling, and may I long experience the joy of teaching without question or hesitation all those who walk through my classroom door.

Things I Have Confiscated from 9-Year-Olds in the Past Three Weeks

or

A Narrative of Life as a Child Warden

  1. One plastic skull;
  2. One zombie finger;
  3. Four plastic dimes;
  4. One set of playing cards;
  5. One crocheted hat (subject of a vigorous debate over whether “Rastafarian” and “Jamaican” were synonymous);
  6. Three poker chips;
  7. One small orange monster toy;
  8. Three LEGO minifigures;
  9. Uncountable dry erase markers (also known as “I can doodle on my desk” markers);
  10. One noisemaker;
  11. One rubber bracelet (post-launching at another student in hallway);
  12. One water bottle (post-creating loud whistling noises with the straw);
  13. Two six-sided dice and one ten-sided die;
  14. One stuffed bear;
  15. Two cell phones;
  16. One pair of boots;
  17. Three paper airplanes;
  18. Two sets of noise-canceling headphones (being used during whole-class instruction);
  19. Four books being read at inappropriate times (one, in classic fashion, being nested behind the social studies text. The owner, upon being discovered and told he was “Not that subtle” then attempted to read under his desk);
  20. One pair of scissors and a pencil (owner claimed he was “whittling”);
  21. One glue stick;
  22. Two rolls of tape being used to create beards during cleanup time;
  23. Two action figures (one Batman, one unidentified);
  24. One Bride to Be sash;
  25. Three boxes of goopy moldable eraser substance;
  26. One baseball cap;
  27. Seven blocks of Post-it notes whose primary function was decorating the desks of children who were paying no attention to anything ever; and
  28. Three calculators being used for opaque and nefarious purposes.

My mentor – who is hilarious – suggested purchasing a large glass container in which to store all of my prizes and then giving it, county fair-style, to the child who most accurately guessed the number of contents at year’s end. I am sorely tempted by this.

Stay tuned for updates on the first weeks of school (they rocked), how I deal with students who can’t stop talking while I’m talking (oh, they stop talking while I’m talking), and the time I nearly faceplanted after tripping over the projector cord (it was pretty funny).