Saturday, September 26, 2015

Taking the Risk out of Risky

As I read Chapters 2 and 3 of Nakkula and Toshalis’s Understanding Youth, I was brought back to my many undergraduate psychology courses at Rhode Island College.  However, contrary to what many might think, it wasn’t necessarily a bad reminiscence because I enjoyed most of those courses, and the ideas of psychologists such as Erikson and Marcia have helped me to further understand adolescent (and human) psychological development.

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With that being said...I don’t want to spend time going over the distinct stages of youth and adolescent development because I think the authors do a good job condensing the material.  I also appreciate the way they weave in and out of informational writing and real world narrative accounts of some of the theories being played out in a high school atmosphere.  (Although I have to say that some of the students’ dialogue is funny to read because I know the authors were trying to hone in on teen dialect and slang, but it sort of felt contrived…oh well, at least they tried!)

I want to focus on two quotes from chapters 2 and 3 that I feel spoke to me and my role as a teacher and, therefore, contributor of meaning making identity:

“Our own development is reflected in the challenges of our students; if we pause to recognize the images of adolescence reflected back to us, the possibilities for authentic connection are multiplied exponentially.  The us-them dichotomy can be reconfigured as an integrated “we,” working together, relying on one another, to create possibilities for who we are and what we might become”(27).  I agree completely here and I think Ayers would as well.  We need to, as educators, understand that the terms teacher and learner should be replaced with the terms human and human.  OK, yes, it is our job to teach students, but we need to be ever reminded and aware of the fact that we are a direct reflection of our students, just as they are a direct reflection of us.  Also, like Nakkula and Toshalis argue, we need to remind ourselves of the experiences and challenges we ourselves faced as adolescents when interacting with our students.  If we are able to do so, we are better able to work as a team with our students, thus creating the “we” Nakkula and Toshalis speak of.

“As school-based professionals, when we project ourselves into relationships with youth, it is important to be risk takers, not just because it models the sort of risk taking we would like to see in our students but because it helps us to secure relationships and project ourselves into possibilities we might not consider otherwise.  In fact, the adults who take risks in their work with youth are better positioned to influence youth risk taking than those who do not.  As school-based professional try to defend a victim from bullying, step outside the de facto dress code dictated by their peers, voice an unpopular opinion, or raise their hand in class despite being shy, they are most likely to be heard by the youth they are attempting to influence if they have practiced taking the same risks in faculty meetings!(55).  Wow!  This one really struck me because I am most definitely NOT a risk taker in any sense of the word.  I would be the last person to speak up at a 150 person faculty meeting.  But it did make me think that maybe risk taking can sometimes be a good thing...and maybe I should try it more often.  There is a certain level of courage in risk taking that I, of course, want my students to have (and I also want myself to have).  Therefore, if we are, in fact, projections of our students and vice versa, I need to be able to give them an example of some positive risk taking behavior.  Maybe not at the next faculty meeting steps.

OK, one more quote because it reminded me of the famous Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage” quote from As You Like It…

“All of us are playing with and experimenting with identities, trying to be a sort of Chameleon, but one that people can actually see and like”(35) very true about human beings in my opinion! And actually, the stages Shakespeare mentions tie in very closely with Erikson's stages of human circle...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Meeting of the Minds

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In Chapter 1 of Understanding Youth, Michael Nakkula and Eric Toshalis argue that adolescents are in a constant state of “constructing their lives”(5) and “creating development itself”(5).  While the authors ultimately feel that an adolescent’s development is solely based on his/her own interpretations of the world, they also acknowledge that the adults in these adolescents lives “may have an enormous impact on those interpretations”(5).  Therefore, as teachers, we certainly don’t construct an adolescent’s development, but we do play a large role in developing the “theme of education”(5) which is essential to teens’ developing life stories.  

As I was reading Chapter 1, the phrase “Meeting of the Minds” really stuck in my head.  Nakkula and Toshalis believe that, “there must be a meeting of the minds if educators are to play an influential role in the development of their adolescent students.  This meeting can occur around formal academic content as well as less formal social interactions”(8).  We must, as educators, attempt to read the minds of our students in order to be able to connect with them and “meaningfully coauthor students’ educational self-stories”(9). This struck me as weird.  How would I ever be able to read a student’s mind?  I’m not a clairvoyant!  But then I really started thinking about the concept.  OK...I can try to figure out what’s going on in the minds of my students, and, yes, I might be wrong...but without the attempt, I will have no chance of learning how my students think and share my own thinking with them.  So, thank you Mr. Nakkula and Mr. Toshalis.  I’m certainly going to give this Meeting of the Minds a try because the the authors (and I agree) contend that my teaching is high stakes, but not in the traditional way we think about the term.  It is high stakes in terms of my relationship with my students.  Nakkula and Toshalis write, “To promote the development of one’s students and safeguard the development of one’s own craft as an educator demands that we stay connected to the ways in which adolescents are interpreting and constructing their lives, and, in turn, ours”(15).  Wow...sort of heavy stuff...this teaching thing is a lot of responsibility!

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William Ayers talks about the difference between good and great teachers.  He uses the analogy of actors to showcase these differences, and he contends that great acting (and great teaching) can be explained by three principles: 1.) Engagement, Interacting, and Drawing Energy 2.) Learning a part anew each time and 3.) Finding Authenticity (Ayers 96).  I think that Ayers, Nakkula and Toshalis would all be on the same page with this idea of teacher greatness, and I suggest that Ayers also feels that greatness has something to do with self-awareness and the ability of great teachers to be aware of their own educational self-stories (Nakkula and Toshalis 9).  Ayers alludes to this similar perspective: “Greatness in teaching, too, requires a serious encounter with autobiography.  Who are you?  How did you come to take on your views and outlooks?  What was it like for you to be 6?  Where are you heading?  Of all the knowledge teachers need to draw on, self-knowledge is most important”(97).  So...yes...understanding ourselves as human beings is crucial to getting to know and understand the unique complex human beings sitting in our classrooms each and every day.  And if we are more aware of ourselves, maybe we will be better at knowing our students and maybe, just maybe we will be able to advance to a Meeting of the Minds with them.

Something just reminded me of this song as I was writing...One of my favorites and I think fitting :-)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Odyssey of Teaching

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William Ayers looks at the teaching profession through a somewhat tongue-in-cheek mythological lens in his graphic novel To Teach: the journey in comics.  Like the famous Greek hero Odysseus, teachers must navigate through dangerous perils in order to become effective and rewarded in a profession ironically saturated with “myths.”  Ayers writes, “In fact, it’s often the myths themselves that the young teacher must fight against”(3).  He even goes so far as to say that, “Myths tower above the world of teaching like fire-breathing dragons.  Somehow teachers need to slay these creatures in order to move from myth to reality”(8). Ok, so Ayers is clearly toying with mythological allusions here....but his point is well taken.  When I started teaching, I fell prey to many of the myths Ayers discusses.  I believed that “kids today are way worse than ever before”(4) because that’s what the teacher across the hall said to me on the first day of my long-term sub position.  I also thought I had to put on a show everyday and be a “good performer”(5) claiming “center stage”(5) because a lot of my college lesson plans and observations had me doing just that. that I’m a little bit older and (hopefully) a lot wiser, I understand that I was, all this time, Odysseus on a perilous journey to enlightenment--well probably not real enlightenment --but at least enough enlightenment to make me a better observer, a better listener, and hopefully a better teacher.

Image result for to teach the journey in comics

I think it is interesting that Ayers chooses to cover his book with an two images: one that depicts a teacher teaching a student and the other image the reciprocal-a student teaching his teacher.  I think this notion of reciprocality is exactly what Ayers wants teachers to understand and embrace.  Ayers argues that, “Teaching is an interactive practice that begins and ends with seeing the student...The student grows and changes, the teacher learns, the situation shifts, and seeing becomes an evolving challenge”(13).  I think this is the most important lesson to learn as a teacher.  As teachers, we are not the ultimate supreme keepers of knowledge.  We are constantly learning and evolving, and the majority of this evolution is a direct result of insight we gain from our students.  Since I’ve started the ASTL program, I have just begun to really think about teaching as a reciprocal process.  I was probably always learning from my students but I am just now starting to realize it and label it as such.  There is a level of compassion to my teaching this year that I’ve never experienced before and I think it is due to my acknowledgment that I am learning more from my student than I could ever teach them.

One of my favorite authors Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes, Teacher Man) looks at teaching as a journey in this clip...pretty cool!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Underbelly of Learning

Frank Smith is absolutely correct when he asserts that students always learn from their teachers.  In fact, he contends that, “Something is being learned, whether we want it or not, all the time”(5).  I’ve never thought about learning in such absolute terms before. However, I agree with Smith in that my students learn from me and I learned (and am still learning) from my teachers and professors.  The key here is not the certainty that learning is taking place.  The key is the type of learning that is taking place.  For example, I might think I am teaching my students to write a narrative essay when, in fact, maybe I am really teaching them not to use contractions in their writing.  The strange part is that I consider narrative writing a vital skill and grammar a somewhat trivial skill; however, narrative writing may not be what students are actually learning in my class.  Therefore, it is essential for me to make sure that what students are “learning” in my classroom is as close to my intentions and learning objectives as possible.  The question  is: How do I make sure that is happening?

I think it is interesting that Smith labels “A Tale of Two Visions” as Classic and Official (5).   It seems to me that most schools still operate under the Official system.  In fact, even the name sounds rigid and inflexible.  Smith contends that the official system is “preeminent, coercive, manipulative, discriminatory-and wrong”(4).  (Tell us how you really feel Mr. Smith!)   Among some of its other evils, Smith argues that the official view convinces teachers, parents and students that the most important part of education is grades(4).  In beginning the ASTL program last year and throughout the first three courses, I made a huge effort to try and get away from my over-reliance on the importance of grades.  I also tried to take this philosophy into my classroom.  To me, making grades the epitome of importance in schools is one of the worst parts of the official theory because it actually takes student learning completely out of the equation.

Smith embraces the classic view of learning and I completely agree.  The classic view is not bound by grades, tests, memorization, and punishment. It is focused on learning for learning’s sake.  It is focused on excitement, reflection, and self-awareness.  When I think about this type of learning, of course I think about Socrates.  

TED Talk on a classic approach to learning and The Flipped Classroom:

I want my students to learn classically, but I understand it is difficult to break out of an Official system and philosophy of learning and education.  Smith contends that, “Desired learning, and the overcoming or avoidance of detrimental  learning, may sometimes demand special conditions and exceptional patience and talent”(5).  So, yes, it is difficult to break out of the official theory mold, but it is something I am committed to doing in my classroom.