Saturday, 28 April 2012

Just Another Thursday

Students recording their project in the recording studio
I had an interesting Thursday a few weeks ago when I was pleasantly surprised three times. The first was when some boys came into the library to use the recording studio.  What was surprising was not their use of the studio, but the fact that one of them was a student of mine who I would never have guessed had any interest in music or singing. He was a junior hockey player who (I assumed) spent most of his time thinking about sports. I would never have anticipated his choice to create a musical project. 

My second surprise came after a short activity in my class where students were asked to draw key images from a poem they were studying. I often try to throw artistic options into my lessons and this was a simple five minute activity. Many students give me stick figures or something equally simplistic, (and that's fine because I'm looking for their understanding of the poem and not their artistic ability). That said, when  I was going through the sketches later that evening I was caught off guard by this:

Again, I was not surprised because of the quality of the drawing, but because I did not expect this type of ability to come from this particular student.  The student was a big, tough, wise-cracking rugby player, and I had no idea he could draw! He whipped off the above sketch in less than five minutes. 

Finally, on that same Thursday, I needed to drive across town after school and 2 students asked me for a ride. One of the students gets into trouble fairly consistently and is known as a difficult student to have in a classroom. We ended up having a chat as I drove, and imagine my surprise when I found out that he plays in his own band, and also takes a Jazz class in the mornings at 7:30 as well as a regular band class. Hmm..somehow this boy who can't get to regular classes on time, or stay focused, manages to get up and attend early music classes as well as practicing regularly and performing on his own. Again, an example of something I wouldn't have expected. 

On that particular Thursday I had three different students completely disprove my superficial assumptions about them. Each time I was also reminded of how important it is to find ways for students to connect with their talents and passions within regular classrooms.  If the first student hadn't been given an opportunity in his marketing class to write and perform a jingle, his teacher and I would never have discovered his passion for music. If I had never offered a simple sketching option in my class, I would not have discovered the second student's artistic ability. I wonder how many teachers of the third boy have no idea how passionate he is about his band. 

It was a unique day in that three different students surprised me with their hidden talents, but why were these talents such a surprise in the first place?  Student passions and abilities should be out in the open and celebrated because we should be providing ways for students to connect with them and engage with them on a regular basis.  I just happened to discover the personal interests of those three boys that day, but those interests were always there. How many of our students pass through our school system without anyone knowing what they are really good at or what they are passionate about? All of these students walk through our hallways and sit in our classrooms everyday.  In that regard, it really was just another Thursday. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

True Leadership

Dana supervising her constantly busy classroom on Friday
 Dana and I have taught across the hall from one another for the past 5 years. She teaches textiles and I teach English. If you really want to understand the value of an educator you need to be in close proximity to their classroom on a regular basis. You need to cross paths with them and glance into their classroom everyday. I am currently struggling to find the appropriate words to honour the impact that Dana has on our school. 

Dana does not flash. She does not dazzle. She does not promote herself in any way. I swear to you, the woman has no ego, and she would be the last person to expect to have a blog post dedicated to her. Instead, it is her relentless work ethic, combined with a quiet humility and integrity make her so meaningful to the students and staff at our school. 

I'll begin with Dana's class. When you walk in the room the atmosphere is both comfortable and busy. Her classroom is buzzing but at the same time cozy and safe. Dana not only creates a caring place for her students to be, but within that environment she finds ways to help them all become successful. Our most vulnerable students create projects they are deservedly proud of. Dana also runs a very successful program, and many of her graduates pursue careers in textiles and design. She teaches elective courses, yet she does not need to advertise or recruit. Her classes are full.

I love to use Dana's classroom to gauge my own. When I wander into her room I am reminded of what I feel education should be. Students are doing things not studying how to do them. They are social, they are focused, and they are actively problem solving. They are comfortable and they are happy. If my room does not somehow resemble Dana's, if my students are passive and disengaged and isolated, then I know I need to revise my lesson. I know that hers is the model I need to aspire to even in an academic subject area.  There have been times when a student is skipping my English class but somehow manages to make it to textiles class everyday. Hmm.... I think that's a lesson for the teacher, and not the student.

But while I truly admire Dana's skill as a teacher, I am also endlessly grateful for the work she does for our staff.  Maybe it's the time of year, or maybe it's the political climate, but I need my staff more than ever these days and when things get rough or a colleague is struggling, Dana. is. everywhere. How do you explain the value of a person who does everything in their power to help those around them, yet desires no attention for themselves? Dana consistently supports all staff activities,  and she also organizes the collective group support if someone needs help. 

What is it that makes the chemistry work within a large group of people? The composition of a school staff is usually left up to a variety of random factors. All I know is that the more people like Dana that you have on your staff, the more effective the overall school experience will be.  The more individuals who are working towards pulling people together and building others up, the stronger everyone is. We all love the "performers" and those that inspire with grand actions and rousing speeches, but the true backbone of great teams are those who work quietly and selflessly behind the scenes for the benefit of others. Students of course recognize this too. While kids love to be entertained, they also have built in "BS radars" and sincerity and integrity will win the day every time.  

So here's to Dana. She would be mortified (and mystified) if she read this post, and that is of course why it had to be written. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Kids Are Alright

Student and "buddy" at the extended care home on Friday

I get a variety of responses when people learn that I work with teenagers. Unfortunately reactions lean towards the negative side and usually range somewhere between surprise and pity. Comments such as: "You're a sucker for punishment",  "I just couldn't do it", and  "Kids these days don't have any respect, work ethic,  (insert-positive-trait-here)" are common.   Fortunately there is a class activity that consistently reminds me that the kids are just fine.

Every semester I take my classes to a nearby extended care home where my students are partnered up with a resident. The initial atmosphere is intimidating for most of the students. Extended care homes are filled with many people who are struggling with severe mental and physical disabilities and many of my students have never been in that environment. Having a conversation with an individual with dementia or palsy pushes most people beyond their comfort zone. The interesting thing is that I have taken numerous trips to care homes over the years, yet I have never seen a student show anything but patience, compassion, and respect towards the residents that they meet. I have watched students with "attention issues" listen patiently and respectfully (for close to an hour) to someone who can barely speak above a whisper. Students with "behavioural difficulties" have personally volunteered to visit with a resident who is profoundly impaired. For whatever reason, the experience always brings out the best in these kids. 

Here's an example: during my last visit I walked by one of my students who was listening intently and smiling at the gentleman he was sitting with. As I quietly passed them I felt relieved that this particular student had been partnered with a capable storyteller. This was a student who often seemed angry and unhappy and I had hoped he would have a good experience during our visit. After we were back at school, I commented to him that the gentleman must have been very engaging to create such response. The student caught me off guard when he said "No, actually Harold really had trouble speaking; he hardly said a word the entire time". I was struck by how attentive and patient my student had been despite the fact that his partner was limited in his communication. If at any time in the future I get frustrated with this particular student, I'm going to remind myself of the obvious humility and character he displayed in that situation.

As a teacher these trips to the extended care home remind me of three things. The first, is that when students are put in situations that demand their best behaviour and attitude, they will ultimately rise to the occasion. I like to believe that their true personalities are revealed, and the admirable characteristics they display at these times represent who they really are.

The second is that I really need to work harder to provide more of these situations in my teaching. I have a pretty strong hunch that a key reason the students respond so positively is because of the authentic learning environment where they are outside of the classroom and making a difference in the lives of other human beings. The students demonstrate their true character because the experience is real.  I need to provide more of these opportunities in my classes.

Finally, (and most importantly), these trips remind me that our youth are a testament to the optimism we should hold for the future.  At the core, our students are kind and caring and empathetic, and when the time comes for them to step up and take their place in the world, we'll all be alright.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

What I Don't Want To Forget

Last year a student walked into my Literature 12 class three weeks into the course. She had transferred from another school, and she sat through the first class without saying a word. Later when I spoke to a counsellor about her, a sad story emerged. This particular student had not been in a regular classroom for over three years. She had spent grades 9, 10, and 11 in the alternate program at her previous school, and before that spent a significant amount of her middle school time on a bench in front of the principal's office. Chances of graduation were slim to none...yet here she was sitting in my class. For the next three weeks she came to class regularly but said nothing and did not participate in any way. Those who are familiar with my classroom know it is high action and high participation but this student sat stoically through everything with hardly a change of expression. She was a difficult student to teach. While she wasn't disruptive, she gave me nothing back. Like most teachers, I certainly appreciate the positive responses from students that keep my energy running, but for the life of me I could not get any response from this girl. If this was really just about getting 4 credits towards graduation, couldn't she get it in a different course? This kid obviously didn't care about school.

 A few more weeks went by, and then out of the blue she brought me a picture, (the original of the photocopy you see above). At our graduation ceremonies we put baby pictures beside the graduation pictures of our grads and this student had found one and brought it in. The picture shocked me. It shocked me so much that I photocopied it so I wouldn't forget. 

 I didn't want to forget that this student obviously wanted to graduate. Despite her lack of emotion, she did have a purpose for being in our school. She cared enough to bring in her picture for the awards ceremony at the end of the year. This also reminded me that I was teaching a student that was willing to come to a new school after three years and struggle through a regular classroom block schedule and a new group of peers.

I didn't want to forget that she was once a baby. She was a child with dreams, and hopes, and a future. What did the world look like for that child when she smiled for the camera in that picture? What were her parents' hopes for her? As high school teachers I think it is more difficult for us to remember this as many of our kids look like adults. I didn't want to forget the hope and inspiration I get from working with children

I didn't want to forget that it didn't matter where she came from, or how she got there. The only thing that mattered was that she was in my school, and in my classroom now and my truest obligation as a teacher was to help her succeed in any way possible. 

I didn't want to forget that it is easy to teach the kids who give me clear indicators of how much they are enjoying my course. The reality is however, that students who don't appear as if they want to be there might still be giving me all that they can at the time. 

Finally, I didn't want to forget that every single student I teach was once a baby starting life with a future full of possibilities. Terrible things happen to some of them along the way, but I have an obligation to view every student as that child with a whole world of promise and hope in front of them. Who am I to decide who deserves to be in my classroom or not? I will not forget that every student wants to succeed, every child should get the benefit of the doubt, and every student deserves my best.