Saturday, May 30, 2015

Recipe for Teacher Success

Sometimes, it takes a high school sophomore or two to remind you what’s important.

Earlier today, I was reading and “grading” my students’ reflections on the coding experiences I put them through this semester, and I was really blown away by some of their personal epiphanies.  I really enjoyed commenting back to them, as I think I’ve now been through enough time on this planet to say I might know just a FEW of the “answers.”  After I finished, I posted the following “recipe for teacher success” to my Facebook and Twitter:

1. give kids a hard task
2. have them write reflectively
3. read reflections (bring tissues)

It didn’t take long for someone to respond on Twitter with a step 4: “give kids a hard task based on reflections.”  Absolutely right.  If we’re going at this whole education thing the correct way, that is the natural next step.  Some people call it “life.”

One of my students, whom I teased about whining when the coding activities got frustrating, shared that she learned she has a tendency to give up too easily.  She found herself relying on friends for help, or avoiding the task at hand, but then eventually prevailing when she just forced herself to push through it.  I loved that I was able to respond with encouraging words, suggesting that now she can see this predilection on the horizon in future situations and self-talk her way through or around it.  

She also quipped one of my favorite lines of student writing I’ve read in a while: You know how kids don’t want to eat their broccoli at dinner? That was me with coding.”

This was the perfect opener, on their last formal writing piece of the course, for me to recognize her very effective conversational yet well-crafted writing style.  It reminded me of my own blogging.  Which is how we find ourselves right here, right now.

Another student observed that text-based games like the Zork series seem to act like programs themselves, that require particular commands in order to be completed.  (We had modified a text adventure style game in Trinket one day in class.)  I had never thought of that before.  Just the act of playing a computer game, which had to be programmed by someone else, consists of commands and other actions that require thinking like a programmer.

Though one of the students in the class determined that these activities, learning coding through games, solidified for her that she has no desire to pursue programming again, many of her classmates discovered that programming was more fun and accessible to them than they had ever imagined.  After all, they took this course with me to avoid taking a programming class.  Since one of my goals was to alter their perception about computer science and programming, and to change their ideas about whether coding is “for them.”

I’m really sharing this reflection of my own because I feel so grateful to get to work with young people and try new things with them and witness how they respond.  I feel as though if I don’t tell somebody -- everybody! -- then maybe my lack of gratitude would jinx the whole thing and I could lose it all.  But also, because it seems I have discovered a kind of secret sauce that many of my amazing friends in EdTech have also found.  This recipe for teacher success is a recipe for student success, for meaningful educational experiences, for happiness, for true reflective practice, for so many things we need more of in schools (and in life) but that our testing-crazed and over-committed lives frequently rob from us.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Haircut Day

Today, it’s a Saturday in May, and I am spending most of it grading. Deadlines, you know. But I needed a break, so I thought I would write about last Saturday. As weekend days go, it also had a singular, very focused purpose: getting my son a haircut.

Now, you need to understand that my son is eleven and has mild autism and has been growing his hair long because he wants it that way. And my husband and I have been walking a tricky tightrope of give-and-take, since hubby isn’t super into the boy having his hair long (though he is coming around somewhat), and I feel very strongly that I want him to be able to have power of this aspect of his appearance and his life.

First things first, though: we are all about the hygiene. Both my husband and I work with children. Other people’s children. Sometimes smelly children. I have leaned over many a pre-teen head to give guidance at a computer and had to hold back on the retch I’ve felt welling up. I have a super-sensitive olfactory gift, you see. Another aspect of hygiene is appearance. Neither my husband nor I can handle an unkempt appearance. We just can’t. Don’t try to fix us; we’re fine.

So we have set up rules about bathing and washing hair daily, brushing hair several times a day, using deodorant, brushing (and flossing and rinsing) teeth, and so forth. It’s hard enough to have autism. Being the smelly, dirty, weird kid is especially hard to bounce back from. And we start middle school in a few months. People with Asperger’s and autism are especially prone to a condition called “not giving a damn about personal hygiene.” So we’re vigilant, to say the least.

And so we find ourselves on a lovely Saturday with a boy who doesn’t want anyone coming near his hair, and me promising we won’t do anything drastic. And then it occurred to me: this isn’t just about being eleven and wanting to exert some control over a matter of one’s personal style. Getting a haircut is a rather sensory experience on a lot of levels. A person you don’t know very well touching your head. Loudly buzzing clippers right next to your ears. Strange smells and foreign noises while you sit on a chair that spins and goes up and down under someone else’s control.

On the drive to my hair dresser’s salon, I asked Cameron if there was more than one reason he was not happy about getting his hair cut. I told him that I understood that he wants to be old enough to decide about his own hair, which he agreed was part of what upset him. I also asked him if maybe all the sensory experiences I just described were upsetting to him.

Yes. Also, the last time his Dad took him for a haircut, the lady cut off more than even my husband told her to. So not only does the boy have no control, even his father can’t protect him from too extreme a cut.

We’ve done most of Cameron’s haircuts at home, with clippers. That is no longer an option or something we will consider. Scissors only. And neither hubby nor I are qualified to wield those.

I brought Cameron to my own hairdresser, who has been doing my hair since before he was born, I think, and whom he knows and at least respects and likes. I had already texted her in detail about what was up. She was really great. She explained to him, reassured him, and was really gentle and calming the entire time.

He still silently wept through the entire ordeal, but that wasn’t her fault. 

All we did was have her trim some dead ends and do a small amount of layering to the top and sides, so it would fall more neatly when he combs or brushes it. She complimented the length he had grown it, and she told him how much she likes how the back gets curly. I couldn’t have asked for a better performance by her, emotionally and professionally. His hair does look really nice. Most people can’t even tell it was cut, just that it looks neater.

But the build-up, the ride there, the talking him down during and after, and the therapeutic discussions and choices made for the remainder of the day were hard work and they were very draining. I negotiated my way through getting him to actually eat something when we went for lunch on the way home. I talked him into having some of my fries, and by the time we got to the front of the line to order, had even wrangled him into getting a chicken sandwich. I let him get whatever he wanted to drink (no beer, wine, or artificial sweeteners, though).

When we got home, he was free to do whatever he wanted. I am pretty sure he played with Lego in his room and rode his scooter outside for a bit. To be honest, I was so wiped from trying to maintain emotional control, that I don’t completely remember the rest of the day. I know I took him for sushi on the Friday night as a positive start to the weekend, to sort of buffer it all.

This is the kind of thing that can be really challenging about even the mildest of autism. People think your kid’s a little quirky but they expect him to be able to do everything a neurotypical kid can do, just the same way or at the same level or speed. I had a pretty busy and eventful week at work, but we had Haircut Saturday, followed soon after by Dentist Tuesday (with x-rays, a cleaning, and the news that we need to have two of his teeth pulled next week), and frankly, a lot of my life becomes a total blur on a semi-regular basis.

I just wanted to blog about this lest ye think that it all sunshine and rainbows over here in autism family land. I tend to share pictures and blog posts about the small victories, because that is what I want to remember. But a lot of our most important lessons on this journey come out of the difficult, painful days.

#makeschooldifferent Challenge

Yesterday, I was tagged in a tweet that brought my attention to this very cool challenge.  Diana Neebe blogged her response and tagged me in her list of five educators, all of whom I love and respect immensely, and I am very much looking forward to hearing their thoughts on this.

The origin of this challenge is Scott McLeod's April 13 (2015) blog post.

So here goes my contribution:

When it comes to education, we have to stop pretending that . . .

1. Standardized testing is ever going to give us any useful data beyond what we already KNOW about our students.  Testing only shows us who is good at taking tests.  Actually, let me revise that statement.  Poor performance on standardized tests is great for pointing out who comes to school hungry, overtired, stressed out, impoverished, neglected, or victimized by racism and classism inherent in our society's systems.  We need to stop using test scores to tell us what we already know, and then ignoring their message.  Rather, let's solve those societal problems and stop giving tests at all.

2. "The way we've always done things" and "BGUTI (better get used to it)" are good reasons to keep doing things that are ineffective, harmful to students, or both.  Students, parents, families, teachers, administrators, and everyone else involved in education deserves better.  Do you still have a VCR you use daily?  A record player?  A rotary dial phone?  In every other aspect of life, humanity has discovered, developed, or invented better ways of doing things.  And that's not just with regard to technology, though that's the easiest place to find contemporary metaphors.  Adults, think back to your own school days.  Do you remember all the things you learned from worksheets and workbooks?  How about lecture and note-taking?  I know that my own strongest and most positive memories are from the times I was actively involved in creating something: music, a poster for a project, a model.  Some of the memories weren't even all that positive, but they stuck.  Worksheets? Not so much.

3. All students learn in the same way, at the same rate.  If there is one thing that having a son with autism has taught me, it's that I was wrong a lot in the past in my assumptions about students who need to do things differently.  One famous quote that is often misattributed to Albert Einstein is about how if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.  While that is more about everyone having their own strengths, it also applies to how we learn and how quickly we learn.  If we could make our education system truly more individualized and personalized, we could eliminate a lot of the negativity surrounding education.  A potential subtitle for this point could be "We have to stop pretending that homework doesn't suck."  Don't even get me started on homework.  Kids that need extra practice are tortured by it, and are likely practicing concepts incorrectly. Kids who "got" the concepts in class and who sail through their homework probably don't even need to be doing it. The divides we see among students are widened because kids who need extra support are often in homes where there may be no one available to provide that support during homework time. And kids who have special interests or activities outside of school, the things they love because they're good at them or successful there when they aren't in school, often have to choose between homework and what they love and can succeed in.

4. Teaching is a profession anyone can do, especially when they drop out of something "better."  Too many people in our society view the career path of teachers as something we've settled on because we couldn't make it as anything else.  And society also seems to expect that all these all-but-failures they've somehow okayed to be in the classroom can get it together to completely transform their kids, despite all the factors working against us. So teachers are given no respect, but are expected to perform miracles. And despite all they are up against, most of them do.  But it's never enough.  And then people wonder why we can't keep good teachers, or why no one wants to enter the profession in the first place.  We need to change society's view of and value placed on teachers.

5. Education is about anyone other than the students themselves.  There's a lot of talk in this country today about our societal ills and how if parents would just do their jobs, if teachers would just do their jobs, etc. But when people "just do their jobs," young people are often given the short shrift.  By the time students are old enough to figure out that someone may not have done right by them, it's often too late to win them back to having a positive outlook about their own futures.  In the meantime, while we're racing to run off copies of a quiz, or grading piles of homework, students need us to stop and get to know them.  To ask why they're upset. To check in on how things went in that competition or performance they just had. To find out what they like about the book we're reading.  To validate what they didn't like about a project.  During August trainings, I've heard teachers (myself included) joke about how school would be so much fun if it weren't for the students showing up on the first day.  And I've heard some people say it who were NOT joking. I've heard complaints about the kind of students a teacher "has been given" as if they were talking about an STD they caught by accident.  I've known educators who simply do not like kids.  And I've asked, sometimes out loud, "Um, WHY did you go into teaching?"

I think all of my ideas point to a bigger picture of having our lenses all out of focus when it comes to accountability.  I am a professional.  I have two degrees. I have over two decades of experience in the classroom. And I have a very good track record. Allow me to do my job and be accountable to my most important stakeholders: my students. Honor that as a teacher, I make great sacrifices to do right by them every day, and even on weekends and holidays.

I am also a parent.  Please like my kid.  Get to know my kid.  Give him a chance to show you that he IS capable and that he CAN do and learn, even if he needs more time or different methods than other kids. Especially now as he enters adolescence, he is looking to everyone BUT his parents for validation that he and his very existence are not mistakes.

I've been absolutely blessed. Not every step of my path as an educator and parent have been easy or positive, but I have spent much of my time in both roles in relatively cushy situations. I am valued where I work. I am given the resources I need. My son is loved and appreciated and encouraged in his schools (past and present). I am well aware, however, that so many educators and parents experience the myths I've outlined above daily. And I've received my share of snide remarks about my choice of profession.

Finally, and partly in hopes of a post that is more positive to follow mine, I need to tag five educators to continue the conversation in their own spaces.  Who are five people whose views I would really love to hear on this? I choose Rushton Hurley, Julia Fallon, John MillerJon Samuelson, and Karen McKelvey.  These are all people I've spent time with in various situations, solving the world's problems over a drink or a meal or a ride to the airport, and each of them has made me better at what I do.