Friday, March 25, 2011

You, Student Teacher; Me, Jane, and Tom, and Cesar, and Ana...

You, Student Teacher

Before you “go out into the field,” to experience “splendor in the grass,” or really just a face full of turf and a mouth full of child-trodden mud…


            Q1: Why start with Standards?
            Q2: Why not leap into Classroom Management?
            Q3: If Childhood Development is so important, why not start there?
            Q4: Why not leap into Lesson Planning?
            Q5: Why not teach Assessment at the same time as Standards?

            A1) Standards are TANGIBLE. Student teachers are reading, defining, analyzing, interpreting, and finding out what they don’t know on a subject-area level. They will pay more attention in their subject-area classes because they will be thinking about the standards attached to the subject.
            A2) You can’t manage a classroom when you haven’t learned anything about lesson planning or instruction or childhood development.
            A3) Childhood Development is so much theory when you have no idea what you are going to do with that information, like plan a lesson.
            A4) You can’t plan lessons when you have no idea what standards you have to meet.
            A5) You can’t think about creating assessments unless you understand standards and lesson planning, so you revise the lesson plans in light of assessment, and learn to work that way in the first place.
            A6) Are you still with me? I’ve spent two decades living with and thinking about this shit.

            And now . . . the student teachers have learned it all. It’s time to APPLY it.

STUDENT TEACHING: The Agony, the Ecstasy, the Debrief

            To the Novices: You’re a college senior. You’ve taken education courses for two or three years, in addition to core classes (and classes for your subject-area major--such as English or History or Math or French or Phys Ed or Art--if you are a high school teacher-in-training). Your professors will now find you a Mentor Teacher, and for 9 weeks or so you will teach a couple of that Mentor’s classes, planning lessons, giving assignments, assessing students. It’s hardly realistic, this “fake” time, but what the hell? (See my memoir posts later for stories of my own student-teaching time.)

            To the Rest of You: You now know a lot about why it is that teachers founder and quit at this point, just by seeing how much young teachers OUGHT to know and are usually never taught. So, inadequately prepared, back in 1987 I and my fellow student teachers ran off to our host schools, were thrown into lessons (often preplanned by the Mentor Teacher), and dove in (I told you about the course load I had vs. the course loads of the other student teachers back in my first long post). By way of therapy, our educational instructors held these once-a-week debriefing seminars back at the college during the quarter-long student-teaching among various schools, grade levels, and subject areas. When we would meet, we were supposed to share stories and learn from each other.

            I’ve got to be honest. (Surprised, I know. How do I really feel?) I have only one flash of a memory of this seminar, and it’s when a student-teacher announced she was probably not going to be a teacher after all. We all said, “Oh, no!” or whatever. But I don’t remember a professor addressing it. I’m sure there was a private session--but a real opportunity to LEARN was dropped. All that training wasted--for both the novices and professor. So what can an instructor say at this juncture to reassure/instruct the other novitiates? How do you know they are ready to get out there and teach?

            Here’s a little story, in the present tense.

            As I am revising this chapter, er, post, a friend (whom I’ll call Pam) asks me, “Do you know the secret of cooking brown rice? Mine is never done--it’s always hard in the middle.”

            A good teacher-cook should have her suspicions aroused. It’s always hard in the middle means, “It has not been allowed to finish cooking and does not have enough water to begin with.” Pam does not understand this concept. Ergo, forget, Pam cannot cook rice: The truth is, Pam cannot cook.

            In order to teach Pam how to cook rice, I kind of need to teach her how to cook. Okay.

            Alarmed by my eagerness to help, she quickly adds, “I always cook white rice, and it’s fine.” Oh. So she knows how to cook. But she can’t know how to cook if she doesn’t get the part about “done” and how you get it there: add water, add ten to twenty minutes of heating, etc. She needs basic cooking instruction. So I explain water-rice ratios, low heat, a lid, 45-minutes.

            But she doesn’t want that. Pam just wants to have brown rice for dinner. So even as I guide her to read the package directions, have her measure the water (after she’d filled a pot with a random amount even as I ignored her use of hot water from the tap rather than cold--one thing at a time), and measure the rice (showing her the difference between liquid and dry cups), she sighs. And sighs. This is stupid. It’s just rice.

            So she sets it to boil and goes downstairs. Soon I smell burning. The water has boiled away on the lidless pot, the rice is dry and smoking, and the gas is up full. I call down to her, she comes up. I try to explain about covering, and just at the boil, reducing to simmer, keeping it covered.

            “I never have these problems with white rice. I leave the lid off, and it takes five minutes.”

            Ah ha! In other words, Pam has never in her life cooked actual, real, non-processed rice. But she is sure she has cooked rice, and successfully. And while her argument would have been very convincing to a less experienced cook, I knew right off that Pam couldn’t cook at all, though I didn’t quite know how this could be so.

            If I may now drop the anvil: Good teacher mentors have to listen, watch, probe, if they are to be effective in guiding eager, arrogant, well-intentioned, wildly ignorant student teachers.

            One lesson will not make a bad cook into a good one.  But Pam now knows more than she did, as much because she knows what she DID NOT know.

            This anecdote is by way of helping to illustrate why we need yet another kind of Class Offering. She said verbosely.

            Professors and Mentor Teachers: New teachers just want to be “great.” You know this. They don’t want to learn how to do it. Once they are out there in a classroom, they want to be ready, and an unnerving number are SURE they are ready (but that's really about self-preservation). So when those novices, the student teachers (who have so passionately thrown themselves into the Role of Teacher) gather together, feeling like brow-beaten failures after their first days at their host schools, or--and this is more alarming--recounting glorious successes--a good Instructor needs to keep alert.

            Sure, they’ve taken your classes for the past two or three years. You’ve shown them everything they could ever need to know. But we both know that the real teacher of anything is experience. Cruel, unforgiving, kink-filled experience.

            You don’t want to get sucked into believing everything a novice tells you, good or bad; your role is not finished: You have to keep explaining, keep modeling, keep guiding, even as you keep listening, listening, listening. So what is the forum for this?
             You know how I feel about Methods and Theory. And I think my subject area courses in Language Arts should have been structured as I’ve already outlined in Standards, Lesson Planning, Assessment, and Classroom Management. And instead of any of the rest of the courses I took in education, including Educational Psychology and the rest of the “specialized” courses to do with kids’ heads or cultural constructs, I have an idea for a catch-all replacement to be done alongside the student-teaching term.     

THE ANECDOTES CLASS: But Call it “Senior Seminar” or “The Psychology of Education” If It Pleases You

            An Introduction: Because I was late in my college career before deciding to take education classes, during the summer after my junior year I stayed in town and took two courses (and also acted in the summer theater festival, just to show you how wild I was to learn my craft): The Psychology of Education, I and II.  My instructor in Course I was a Ph.D. who had taught elementary school and had been a reading specialist in the state of West Virginia for 35 years. Her husband was at the university for the summer, so she was asked to teach the class. The instructor for Course II was a Ph.D. from Harvard’s Psychology Department, whose husband was also spending the summer at the university, and would she like to teach? She was delighted.

            THANK GOD FOR THEM.

            Almost everything I remember from education courses came from these two women.

            I will call the Course I instructor Dr. Lettuce. Average height, hard looking, with glasses, wrinkles, and grey roots, she was the real deal, a lifer, a woman with a thousand war stories and she told us all of them. Well, some. “A course like this is just a complete waste of time until you’ve taught school and need answers to questions,” she said. So instead she told us stories, backed up things with theory, and I guess we wrote papers or something. Mostly she modeled how to get to know your students, and the importance of storytelling to teach concepts.

            For example, when you encounter a problem, it is, as often as not, a simple thing that is causing it: One day Dr. Lettuce was called in as a specialist for a boy around age 9 who could name and sound out every letter but couldn’t read a word. When they met, the boy started in trying to read aloud a simple story, sounding out letters, word fragments, all confused. He wasn’t dyslexic. He could write letters fine, identify any letter Dr. Lettuce pointed to. He started, he stopped. This went on a while. Then it hit her: “Billy, do you see how there is extra space here?” She pointed to the space between two words. He looked. “Do you see how there is more space between these two letters than between these other ones?” He’d never noticed that before. She continued, “Did anyone ever tell you that when you get to the big space, you stop making sound?” No one ever had. And with that, Billy was reading on level in about ten weeks. Simple. I wept.

            She also taught us how to adjust to a new culture:

            During then-Miss Lettuce’s first week of teaching--this was first grade--she was reading “The Story of the Three Little Pigs” aloud to the children. When she got to the part where the wolf “huffed, and he puffed, and he blew the house down,” one little boy said, seriously, “That son of a bitch.” Miss Lettuce looked up, in shock. But to her surprise, all of the other children were nodding somberly.

            “What should I have done?” she asked us. Everyone chimed in about the importance of stopping the language, teaching etiquette, all the stuff you might expect. She considered us. She said, “You see, if the child said that, and the other children felt fine hearing it, then all the parents of all these children talk that way, and it’s acceptable. I’m new here, new to the mountains. Who am I to say they are wrong?” Her first response was to walk out to the hallway, and try to stop laughing. In that break, she made the decision to do nothing, came in, and continued reading the story of the pigs. And life went on.

            This story changed my teaching life. When I found myself teaching in a community totally unlike the one I had grown up in, I had everything I’d believed about education--going to college, living a literate life, speaking “well”--completely upended. I returned over and over again to that story, and I adjusted MYSELF. Without that story, I know I would have left that place after a year. That story kept me in many jobs longer than I might have stayed, and that was good. It’s been nearly 25 years and I’m still telling that story, and using it, and on a New York subway it’s invaluable to recall.

            The other instructor I’ll call Dr. Lovage. She looked like the daughter Gertrude Stein and Julia Child might have had. She was very tall. Her eyes smiled through her dark-rimmed glasses in calm wonder at people. She introduced the course by saying, “A course like this is just a waste of time until you’ve been in the classroom and have questions to ask.” So she, too, told us stories instead. She told us about the power of the name. “The name is the most powerful tool a teacher can have.” She demonstrated mnemonic devices to help us memorize our students’ names on the first day. “Don’t take longer than a week,” she said, “or you will lose them.” She told us of prison studies that showed how behavior altered when prisoners felt “known.” To model the concept, she learned our names. She called me by name. I have no doubt she forgot all of us after the three-week intensive, but she knew all forty-odd names during that time. I remember that.

            It took me a couple of years to understand fully how right Dr. Lovage was about the name. I was terrible at names, and kids can do anything when you don’t know how to write them up because you don’t know the right name (and don’t know how many options you have besides “writing them up” when you know them). I used the kinds of tricks she gave me, following an alphabetical seating chart, “Daniel-blondiel; Tasha-titties; Sam-somber; Melinda--mole-inda,” to nail the names by the end of the second day. Yes, I said second DAY. I would give writing assignments, and as they wrote I would stand at the lectern and study my chart and the students. Finally I’d quiz myself aloud in the last minutes of the period, by pointing and saying each kid’s name, first and last, telling them not to help me. It forever enhanced my confidence in my class ownership, and it gave the kids some respect for me, if only for that, by the second day.

            On basic human psychology, the woman was a font. For example, Dr. Lovage told us about why job applications always ask, Have you ever stolen from an employer?  It seems like a really stupid question, right? It’s not. “Thieves live in a world of thieves,” she explained. “Everybody steals, you see--everyone steals. That’s what they believe. So if they say ‘no,’ they’d have to be lying. Right? So they always say ‘yes.’” Dr. Lovage looked at us. She could see we didn’t quite believe her. “But they don’t want to get in big trouble, they want to get the job, so where it says ‘If yes, explain,’ they’ll say, ‘but it was only five dollars.’ Of course they don’t get the job. And they really don’t understand why.”  (I checked this with my mom, a bookstore manager, and she said it was true. “What’s the matter with them?” she asked. I told her. “Well, for heaven’s sake,” she said.)

            That story also helped me understand an important psychology point, by extension: Just as thieves live in a world of thieves, teenagers live in a world of teenagers. They think adults share their low self-esteem, are as judgmental, as neurotic, as crazy, as unforgiving, as arrogant as they are, if they think about adults at all. It’s so easy for those teen bastards to make an adult feel stupid and untalented, if you buy into their world view, think of them as “teen bastards” and forget that they are children and that you know a little more than they do. You have to live in your world, as a teacher, as an adult, and see their world for what it is. You have to counter it without dismissing its validity to them. And help guide them out of it, too.

            There are loads more stories. So here is the point, Professor: Call in the troops! Bring in teachers to tell stories to your student teachers. Do it by theme, if you wish, but use the power of the story to teach.

            Call it Psychology of Education for the credits. And have the students, then, write essays on how they might apply these stories in the future. As important, have them write down their own “war stories” and how they learned from them. Guide them to become metacognative, growing teachers.

            Some of the best learning cannot be effectively measured, as the real meaning so often comes at a later time, and that is something to know, too. Don’t “expect” a lot. Just trust the process on this one. Okay? Oh, and by the way:

SHOW THEM HOW TO APPLY FOR A JOB: Please teach student-teachers how to make an up-to-date résumé using whatever software is current, how to fill out job applications, do interviews, get recommendations, and all that. So basic. So neglected. Provide every job posting you find, show them how to search out jobs, and create some online resource to offer tips for how to find a place to live, settle in, and learn about a new place. Talk landscape, the need to learn about local history, how things are done, to be prepared for the unexpected. Do this with humor.

            Finally, if you haven’t already, create a website or a Facebook page where the student teachers can stay connected to each other if they need to. And let them go. But give them support to the very last second they are on your campus.

            I also think it should be MANDATORY for Colleges to Education to FOLLOW UP and TRACK the experiences of their young teachers for at least 3 years after graduation. I think Colleges should have to report their track records to their universities (not the state, not right away) and hold real conversations about how to IMPROVE if they are losing the national average of 50% in the first or second year. This Internet thing makes is easy to use email addresses and send out an anecdotal survey to complete mid-year, and another one in June. Find out how they are doing. And mean it. AND HOST THEM FOR A WEEKEND, all expenses paid, after the first year and find out: What did you NOT get here? What can we do better? And MEAN IT.

. . . and last, though not least in love, one more suggestion:


            All teachers-to-be should be required, as part of their undergraduate curriculum, to take an Introduction to Acting Class for Non-Theater Majors in the university’s theater department.

            This is so obvious to me, I cannot believe it isn’t already mandatory.

            Professors should take it first. Twice.

            As a teacher I knew liked to say, “This is my show, five performances a day, I booked the room.”

            This is not a line about ego. This is an insight into how much work it is to begin teaching each Monday morning, five classes each day, for five days in a row. You have to be “on,” no excuses, all the time. Kids are needy. Kids are ruthless. Kids are hilarious. You cannot have a mood. You cannot show weakness. You cannot be tired. You have to be energized and excited. ALL THE TIME.

            And this is impossible.

            There are days when you, Teacher, do not want to be there. So how do you fake it?

Listen to Marlon Brando (talking with Dick Cavett) on acting (wait for the ad to finish):

            Acting Class is not about learning to be insincere. It’s about learning a discipline.

            It’s also about overcoming fears of public speaking, of getting up in front of large groups, of facing tough audiences who will never behave as you expect, and often behave in ways that appall. I’ve known at least two teachers who quit early on because of nausea every Sunday night. I’ve known more than a few who couldn’t “fake it” in their classes when they were depressed over break-ups, nervous about being evaluated, or bored by teaching the same lesson for the fifth time that day.

            Acting classes are useful in ways I talk about more in my memoir portion, but I submit to the College of Education departments that they need to make such a course a requirement for all student teachers NOW. Work with the Theater Department to find a way to create a class for your teachers.

            Scheduling Suggestion: Do it the semester they are studying Standards, or during Lesson Planning--in other words, before they get really deep into the education thing. If they can’t bear getting up in front of a group and really cannot get past that, best to find it out ASAP.

LAST THOUGHTS on Colleges of Education (at least for a while)

            Finally, the best teachers, like the truly great stars, are magic. As my friend Howard said, “They are the people you want to knock yourself out for.”

            Do they exude sex, power, dynamism? Nah. They exude Love. Curiosity. Real interest. They are engaged, they are present, they are alive. They want you to be your best. I wanted to be that kind of teacher. I tried. And the country needs more people who want to try that hard, and who feel prepared to do it.

            To Colleges of Education, I say, “Explain it, model it, demand it, assess it. Train! Train like the wind!”

Trailer for BLOG 14

AND NOW . . . it’s time to tell you the little story of my teaching life. And other stuff about teaching. And life.  I started with college because wanted you to have a sense of what I did and didn’t have/know/understand going in, to get the academic stuff out there, so even the charming anecdotes might resonate with a little more desperation, anxiety, and exhaustion than would otherwise seem warranted. Pity and fear, fear and pity. It makes the world go ’round.

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