Monday, October 22, 2012

Why I Love Teacher-Librarians

Four years out of the classroom.  Believe me, it’s not like riding a bike.  I stare at the sea of faces and struggle to remember names, to get the knack, again, of using my peripheral vision to know who is stirring up trouble in the corner, where a fire is being lit, when sad eyes signal more urgent need in a sea of hand-waving and chatter.

I have three classes to teach.  I can’t catch the rhythm of the blocks again and prepare too much or too little, lose papers, miss files, forget important messages.

I reach out like a drowning person and ask the teacher-librarian, Kate Girard, if she’d like to co-teach a unit on poetry with me in the library.  I hold my breath.  She agrees.  She thinks I have something wonderful planned and is looking forward to it – I was, after all, the District Coordinator for Literacy and Learning.  I know things.  I have ideas. She expects great things.

I work late into the night looking for something.  Anything.  I pilfer a unit from the Calgary Science School.    The link to the lessons was no longer working, but the blog post gives me the gist.  Kate sounds a tiny bit wary after reading my cobbled-together plan, but is willing to go along.  I bring the students.  I've barely learned their names.  Thirty grade nine students.  We’re going to write a poem.  I struggle to appear confident.

Our first day was not bad.  The students, I think, were a little subdued, uprooted from their familiar setting, put in the library with an extra teacher and a peer tutor (who happens to be one of my English 11 students).  The second day was less fortunate.  Kate asked questions gently – did I think the students would be clear on the task?  Did we need other examples to help them?  But we’d run out of time, talking only in snatches between classes.  We plunged into a disaster that Kate tells in her deliciously funny blog post.  She writes that teaching with me is like “Dancing with the Stars,” that she is excited to see me in action.  And what action!  Her prediction that the students would be unclear about the task came true and though she was thankfully diverted by technology glitches, I watched the lesson fall apart, my mind empty of solutions.

She graciously allowed me to return to the library the next day.  I was learning.  She quietly took a greater role (thank goodness) in planning.  Things looked up.  We waded through just one more disaster – predicted by Kate, of course – when I blithely insisted that they could find poems on their topic.  The rapidity of the degeneration was breath-taking.  My grade 11 student tried to help, her eyes soft on me, gentle, supportive, kind.  Kate and I, more synchronized, regrouped quickly, and changed the task.

After school that day, cautious after this second disaster, Kate and I did more careful co-planning.  We continued our planning in emails that evening and early the next morning.  Kate noted (at just after 6 am) that she would be in a little late, since she was waiting for more light to pick apples (really!): we had agreed that for our focussed writing chunks, we would pass around snacks.   I'm not sure everyone knows how very common this uncommon dedication is.  But I wish they did.

I'm on my own again with the grade 9s, but I feel more confident, more ready to take charge, more sure of where I'm going.  This last week has been a blessing.  I've had the opportunity to sit next to most of the students in the class and simply listen, talk, help in real ways without even having to worry about the rest of the class, just devoting my energy and attention to each one.  I've had a week to get to know my students that would have been impossible otherwise.  I am on-my-knees grateful that we have teacher-librarians in our schools who have time to support, collaborate, connect, co-plan.  Kate writes about “dancing with the stars.”  She’s right.  But she’s confused about who the star is.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Reflection on Failure

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again – this time, more intelligently.  Henry Ford

It’s difficult, to say the least, to acknowledge failure.  Even though failure has come into fashion, lately, as the cornerstone of creativity, lauded even, as the “new success,” it isn't a less bitter pill to swallow.  Nonetheless, I am very, very glad that in returning to the classroom, I am forced to see the stark evidence of my failure.  Too often, I think, we are able to manufacture success.  I left the classroom four years ago to “make a difference” for teachers; I returned to the classroom to find that nothing has changed.

The focus of my district work was on advocating for and trying to organize systems for working together. I am convinced – still – that it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any hope at all of meeting the diverse needs of our students.  In isolation, not only are we dangerously overburdened and under-resourced (how can we possibly gather sufficient resources alone each semester or year for a constantly changing set of needs?), but we cannot, on our own, affect the life trajectory of a child except in serendipitous ways, by being one of a constellation of positive experiences. Unfortunately, especially for those students who need us most, the constellation of negative experiences buries even our most heroic isolated actions.  Yet the classroom is still isolated.  Despite my district efforts.  Despite the efforts of the school that I've returned to. Despite the daily passionate thoughtful hard work of individual educators.

I learned of my new assignment on a Friday: 90 students in four different English courses on Monday. Here is what my return to the classroom looks like this.

Designing and finding resources:  Each day, every course, needs to be planned, for the most part, in isolation. There is not even a “one-click” space to find locally relevant curriculum-matched plans or mentors.
Learning about students: Each student needs to be figured out “manually”:  there is no on-line access to files and information, no system of meetings for support of the students with identified difficulties.  In the file room, there is a daunting sheaf of paper to sift through, most of it written in vague language with generic recommendations – allow for extra time with tests.  Each student is a mystery that I need to unfold in four short months.
Figuring out how to work again without technology:  I have a blackboard and chalk, limited Internet access for the ancient computer in the corner of the room (with its mammoth monitor), and I must complete the attendance twice daily by hand.  I'm still trying to find ways to support the students with dysgraphia and dyslexia using only paper and pencils and books, without peer tutors or EAs.
Teaching: The students continue to have unique needs.  I continue to face them alone in small room.  Even more, perhaps, than four years ago, they are skeptical that the education we can provide (with our chalkboards and novels) can make a difference to their future.  Their phones buzz and beep; they are constantly distracted, not just by the 29 other students in the small space, but by the world in their pockets.

I can read the student files, of course, find people to ask questions about what has worked for them in the past, organize meetings, connect with the department head, counsellors  principals, become an advocate (again) for technology in the school and in my classroom. I can find resources on-line and  try to connect with other teachers to co-plan at the end of the day.  But each step demands my additional effort – or the additional effort of other (overburdened under-resourced) individuals in the system. There is no system in place to lift the burden.  There is no continued relentless focus on removing the difficulties so that I can teach beautifully.  There are many hard-working, committed individuals doing their very best.

Week four. The question that I keep asking is this: How can I teach?

And this.  If I had to do the last four years again - more intelligently - how would I support teachers so that at last – at last – we can meet the needs of our children?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Easy Hard Decision.

It’s odd how difficult it can be to make the easiest decisions – what to cook for a special dinner, which movie to watch, what to wear to a daughter’s wedding.  But the hard ones, the ones that change your life, are often easy.

I recently made the easy hard decision to step down from my district position and return to the classroom.  In many ways, it was more difficult to leave the classroom in the first place where I felt daily that my work was making a difference for students.  However, given the opportunity, I believed, more than four years ago now, that I could support more students by supporting the work of many teachers.  At first, I thought that I was helpful when I shared “good practice.”  In retrospect, I was as green as the young teacher who came to me in tears with her binder of meticulously prepared lessons:  despite her hard work, she said, the students wouldn’t listen. Of course they wouldn’t - her lessons had nothing to do with the students in front of her.

I eventually came to realize (thank goodness) that my job wasn’t to “fix” teachers or to show them the “right” way (armed with my well-organized binder and slick presentations of research-based practice), but to support them with the resources, in-service, tools they told me they needed and to advocate on committees, in meetings, to the board for what they told me was important.  A short list of key things teachers have repeatedly said were necessary:
  • To feel heard, appreciated, valued, cared about, supported, encouraged, inspired, included.
  • Collaborative networks to exchange ideas and develop learning/leading partnerships.
  • Time in the work day to work and learn together, to incorporate new strategies and ideas, to reflect and plan, to share and ponder.  
  • Well-organized information so they can easily find resources, support, ideas, connections to colleagues whenever they need them wherever they are.
So much energy and resources are spent everywhere in education to change it.  But it seems to me that change is easy.  People change all the time.  And teachers in classrooms certainly deal with change every day. Working with thirty to 120 students each day is not like sorting grommets or writing reports – every day is another change.  It’s exhausting work.  Ask them to do one more thing - tell them to use a different test, another set of strategies, go to five more workshops, write different things on their boards - and watch the doors close.  Give teachers (educated, thoughtful, caring individuals) some time to think together, the simple support they need so they can focus on students, value their input and their strengths – and watch schools transform.

I’ll be in a classroom with my fingers crossed.