Friday, September 12, 2014

Unexpected Perspective

For twenty years I have been in a classroom with 8th grade students. Teachers see students through many microscopes--some thrust upon all teachers across the country, some self-imposed. Most of the lenses are cut from content, data, and standards. We so often zoom in and rarely zoom out and actually look at people.

Our administrators observe us, but we rarely observe each other.

In the past few weeks I have observed four colleagues. My goal is to observe thirty by Christmas even though I have not observed four teachers over the past twenty years.

Two per week during my planning periods should get me there.

Sitting in a 6th grade science classroom on Thursday and an 8th grade foreign language classroom on Friday offered me an unexpected perspective:

I've taken some things for granted.

I have forgotten how much kids grow from 6th grade through 7th grade through 8th grade. I have forgotten that a 6th grade student needs so much attention in learning how to be a student. I have forgotten in 8th grade we can engage so deeply in the content because of the incredible work that has occurred in the grades before us. Our 6th and 7th grade colleagues are, in a sense, pulling double-duty by delivering a robust curriculum in addition to channelling so much energy into the habits of being a good student.

In the 6th grade science room, it was like their skin was on fire with energy. They wriggled. They talked. They leaned from one side to the other. They smiled. They fidgeted. And they engaged with the teacher, Judy, over the directions for the lab:
In your groups, take two plastic cups and write SALT on one and SUGAR on the other. Fill each halfway with water. Put two tablespoons of SALT in the one marked SALT, and two tablespoons of SUGAR in the one marked SUGAR. In each, place a small carrot. In a notebook, make a prediction about what will happen to the carrots--they were starting a study on scientific method.
Those (simple) directions took over twenty minutes to deliver.  Not so simple when your skin is aflame with energy.

The directions were delivered in chunks and were repeated. The teaching strategy was something akin to part-part-whole. Teach one part. Then the next part. And so on.

The students verbally repeated the directions along the way. And then Judy demonstrated each step before pointing to the directions, hand written, on the board.

No stone was left unturned, but turning over so many stones takes time. It was incredible to be reminded just how much guidance an engaged 6th grader needs.

Along the way, students repeated parts of the directions and held their hands in the air in the proper way to hold a scale. They were reminded not to run in the classroom with or without the cups of water. They were reminded not to drink either the salt water or the sugar water. They were reminded not to eat the carrots.

Along the way, they answered questions. Some left their seats for a moment because they had to move. Their bodies have minds of their own. Their bodies made noise. The room was noisy but in a focused, well-directed, vibrating swarm of insects sort of way.

They accomplished their task with energy. They had fun. And they clearly needed to run. Soon.

When I observed the 8th grade foreign language classroom, the students entered on another level. Yes, they talked to one another. Their athletic bodies climbed over desks. They moved respectfully to grab a piece of paper from a shelf. But when they sat, they sat still, and needed at most 45 seconds of directions from their teacher and engaged in the review.

They would be taking a quiz during the second half of class.

My colleague, Marc, led them through chunks of conversations in Spanish and connected with the kids with humor. They were asked to extract information from the conversation, to recall the rules of the sounds of letters, and to notice names they hadn't encountered previously.

Similar to the 6th graders, the 8th graders were repeating things. At times, they repeated the correct pronunciation of words. Mostly, they repeated words and phrases that they had committed to memory.

Nowhere in the process did they need to repeat the directions aloud.

The 8th graders raised their hands like the 6th graders but it wasn't a competition like it was for some 6th graders. To be called on in the 6th grade classroom was a little victory. It was winning. It was a combination of "Yes, I was chosen!" and "Yes, I know the answer!" It was a part of feeling liked, of being noticed, and of being acknowledged.

The 8th graders were not roiling with energy. Their pulse runs deep. They think. They listen.

Yet, they crave opportunities to laugh, to take a breath, and to play too.

And they need adults in their life who take them seriously--who listen. The nature of being a parent, a coach, a teacher makes adults talk at and direct kids. A lot.

But in 8th grade, they thrive under conditions where adults take them seriously. Adults who listen. Adults who engage their minds without holding their hands through everything.

It wasn't any one thing that reminded me of how important our relationships are with our 8th grade students, but it was the act of looking through the lens of teaching--the original lens.--as opposed to the lenses of content, standards, and data. The teaching lens is the one we looked through before we ever finished our education degrees. It is the one that too often collects dust.

Another colleague of mine listened to me share my experience in the 6th grade classroom. I told her about a boy who left his chair and half skipped, half paraded up and down the aisle and then simply returned to his seat. He went back to his work. He just experienced a momentary explosion of joyous energy.

My colleague smiled and said, "See, that is just like my son. My son needs that too. Sometimes I just wish they would just let him get up and run around for a minute too." In that moment, she was a teacher looking through the lens of a mother while talking about other teachers who looked through a variety of lens--some imposed on them, some self-imposed.

However, without zooming out and looking at the landscape of where we are and who we teach, we can take something for granted...we teach people who depend on us for our kindness and compassion as much as they do our knowledge and experience.

And long before our students reach us, they have a history of teachers who taught them a lot about being good students and good people.

And it always points back to our example--the things we do and see more than the things we say.

And because that is true, then seeing our colleagues teach is one lens worth picking up and adding to our perspective.

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