Thursday, August 20, 2009

there was intent, today: intent to attend a faculty gathering at BCC, intent to pick blueberries, intent to avoid potato chips. none of these worked out too well. the BCC gathering was on my google calendar, but i was not in the car dressed like a faculty member at 8:30 this morning, so that didn't happen. stone hill, my new favorite pick-your-own blueberries patch near nineveh, is closed on thursdays now, which i found out when i reached the turn for route 235 off of route 7 and saw their cardboard sign with the new schedule.

i redeemed the morning with a visit to the enchanted garden, where sherry and i talked over blood pressure medicines and other topics. i drove down route 79 with a stop at john's sister's house to drop off table and keg tub, borrowed for the recent wedding celebration. a little further down route 79 i was able to purchase, as planned, the six 80-pound bags of ready-mix concrete, pulling my camry a little closer to the road surface even when carefully loaded. i intended to drive straight home, but i had to pass by the middle school. i just couldn't do it without stopping in to see "my" classroom.

there have been breaks in my 30-year career before; for example, those years when there was a pink slip or a reduction-in-force because of population changes, and i took a job editing at singer-link or running the BCC tutoring program. i don't remember much about the fall after my first son was born (everything was a blur that year); i went back to work when he was one. nate was born in early september so the new school year feeling was replaced by "when the hell am i going to have this baby i feel like an enormous cow." once again, i went back to work when he was one. after that year, i stayed home for some years, during which my sons started going off to school in september. my love for them eclipsed my september longing for tile flooring and chalk dust...until the year i was called into service at the middle school.

that august, i spent time in my new classroom whenever i could arrange it. august was a month of blue skies, crisp nights, and unpacking boxes, rearranging books, creating new materials to use. for sixteen years, then, i looked at august as the time i got to spend in my quiet classroom preparing for it to be a noisy, busy place, where students read quietly, discussed loudly, and wrote. my classroom moved twice after that, but the actual room did not matter. august was still for re-thinking tables, chairs, bookshelves, and ideas.

so how could i drive past the school this morning, when for sixteen years i had spent hours there on warm august days? in fact, i drove past and then turned around. i pulled into the north end of the driveway and parked in my usual spot at the very end of the line. i noticed that the cafeteria hall door was open for some maintenance activity, so i snuck in there and up the stairs to room 234. it was locked, but i could look in the door and see that my successor had been very busy. bright crates of books lined the same wall where i had put my old wooden bookshelves. i had left her most of my 300-book classroom library; i was glad she was using it. there were the tables with tennis balls on the legs to protect the floor. there were the opened boxes of supplies i had had to order way back in december, before i knew i was going on a leave of absence.

i didn't get teary-eyed, though, as i gazed on the media projector attached to the ceiling (i had only had a year or so to play with the smart board) or the changes she had made to the front corner, or the tall file cabinet she had put behind the door. i thought i would, but i was really just excited for her to have her own classroom now. i thought of my consultant teacher. at her room, just down the stairs, her keys were still in the lock, so i knew she was around. when i found her, we caught up on summer news, avoiding the knowledge we both dreaded - that we had only gotten to work together those two years.

i know she will do a good job co-teaching with the new ELA teacher, and i know that i will visit other times and renew the friendships that i have enjoyed. former students will still say hello to me at the giant or on facebook. i will find other tile floors to haunt, other chalk dust and marker fumes to inhale in my new role as doctoral student and adjunct instructor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

every day when i go to the mailbox, there are three or four more bubble pak or padded envelopes with my name and address sharpied on the front. i open them up, take out the slightly scuffed or worn books, and place them on a shelf, in the air-conditioned front bedroom i once shared with a sister, in alphabetical order by author, so that i will be able to double-check that i received all of them.

i had ordered them earlier this month from half dot com or amazon used books after getting the list from the binghamton university bookstore website. now i see that the list is also on the BU blackboard website, under each class that i am taking. to buy all of them, new, would require at least $700. i have kept it under $350, but there are still a few supplemental texts i'd like to own. i may wait until classes start at the end of august, though. i'm feeling a bit overwhelmed.

overwhelmed, indeed, especially since i logged on to the blackboard site and read the syllabus posted by each professor.

have i made a mistake?

will i be able to keep up with the reading? will i be able to navigate the volume of research? will i be able to write scholarly papers and responses on a regular basis? have i given myself enough time by taking a leave of absence from my middle school ELA classroom?

the discussion/seminar format of the classes does not worry me; i have enjoyed the process of making meaning in collaboration with other thinkers when asked to operate that way during the writing project summer institute. indeed, i wish all my coursework, way back in the seventies, had been conducted that way. some of it probably was, but i hadn't been ready for it yet. too bad. my loss.

even as i read these doctoral level syllabi, i'm preparing a syllabus for my own freshman writing class, thinking about how to make it work as a discussion-based writing workshop, when i know that not every student will have read assigned essays. according to the new staff orientation i went to thursday afternoon, not every student will be purchasing the text immediately. financial aid checks to cover textbooks will not have been issued to every student who needs them by the first day of classes. another adjustment, another allowance i will have to make. and come up with a way to accommodate those students and include them in class discussions until they have the money to join fully.

i don't expect my professors to make such allowances. they do not expect me to enroll in these courses without buying the books and making the commitment of time and effort. each one requires me to write an article (25 to 30 pages) that would be of interest to the academicians in each field: history of education, educational planning and policy, and educational research. i know there are topics in each of those fields that i myself am interested in. i will have to choose topics carefully. no one will want me to spend this kind of time unless it is a question i need to learn about.

i hope i can translate this attitude, this approach, into my expectations of my writing students. i want to help them write for college level courses, so it should be about topics they are interested in and studying, if not this fall then next spring. their writing should come from questions they have. their writing should come from what they find out when they investigate their questions of interest. they will need help, as i do, with their research and reading. they will need help summarizing or paraphrasing. they will need help with attributing thoughts to their sources; that is, where did they learn this or that fact? how did that source contribute to their own thinking about the topic? how can they best show that relationship when they present their ideas in writing?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

in august, when nights get cool and days are crisply blue-skied and goldenrod-hemmed, i may start to get some bad dreams. in august, i have started to plan my first few days of school, and often i am visiting my classroom every day to restore bookshelves, put names on folders, set up crates for storing student work. at night, my subconscious, annoyed with the neat and tidy appearance of my classroom by day, messes with my head.

the terror these dreams evoke always involves being grossly unprepared. for example, there is that classic dream of being naked or dressed inappropriately (pajamas, perhaps) just minutes before i am supposed to walk into my class; or the one where i am at school, ready to teach, but i know in my heart that i have no plans and cannot seem to remember what it is i wanted to do. another places me at home, but not ready to leave, when i know i must be in the car by that time. i have seen variations of these over the decades of augusts.

last night i had a new one, but it was so telling. it reflected a new feeling i've been getting about initiatives our administrators have been pushing. in this dream, i was at school or in a large room like the ones we have our superintendent's day meeting in, but not an auditorium. packets were being given out - the ones that contain payroll forms, substitute call-in information, updates on construction in this or that part of the school district. in this dream, there were also Lego toy sets in clear plastic bags for some reason, and other toys and trinkets.

i knew i wasn't supposed to have a packet, or a bag of toys, because i am on leave and will not be in my usual 8th grade ELA classroom, but i was there anyway. it made me want a packet, so i stood in line. the young girls (probably high school student council members, put to work quite often at conference days of late) didn't realize i wasn't supposed to have these materials and gave them out to me. then we all sat down to learn the choreography for our conference day dance. hmmm, i've been attending these conferences days every september for so many years - never were we made to learn and perform a dance. what a dream, huh?

and yet not so much of a dream. we are asked to learn new dances often. the dances are called by many names: balanced literacy, parallel tasks, RCT, collaborative learning, 7 intelligences, learning styles, APL, no child left behind. the new vocabulary dominates the memos, or emails, we receive for that year. announcements are made at faculty meetings that walk-throughs will be looking for this or that. to many of our staff, the terms are new and strange. they feel like students who have not studied, and start the year with that same uncomfortable feeling that many of our students feel about so much of the material for which we hold them accountable.

in my dream, i felt great relief when i realized i didn't have to learn this latest dance. i was so relieved, in fact, that i offered to help teach the choreography. then i woke up.

for teachers to put best practice into effect, they have to own the process. how often have we made this statement about our students? yet we expect to impose knowledge and practice on the staff of an entire school. garbage in, garbage out. shoving something in by memo, lecture, and one demonstration does not ensure that it will be seen in stellar form in our classrooms. rather, it encourages students/teachers to fight back with passive resistance, working to a grade (hey, my students pass the state assessments; isn't that good enough? why don't they leave me alone?) or sniping at administrators and compliant teachers. not a good way to run a school.

what if learners/teachers met together because they wanted to and were used to such a practice to talk about what was working in their classrooms, what wasn't working, what students were writing and how they were performing, what was new in the professional literature? what if these communities generated the next big push, the next district-wide initiative? what if these communities determined curriculum together?

it's funny, that's what i thought was coming when my district announced a big push, a new initiative, to engage in Professional Learning Communities. it turned out that this variety of PLC emphasized investigation of data rather than discussion of teaching technique. examining data is important, if we remember that its value is limited by the strength of the assessment that gathers it. the more important discussions, of teaching method, of points of emphasis, never got the time they needed when we were all focused on entering numbers into Excel spreadsheets.