My front row seat

I’m a big fan of school (especially ZLO!).  It’s no secret.  I love the heft of a textbook and all the backpacks, papers and pencils.  Better than that are the kids who are interesting, friendly and funny.   And even better — is watching them learn.  Usually, this happens in subtle increments but on precious days, I get to be witness to some huge leaps and then it’s awesome!!  Some, well most, people don’t get it but if you could see what I see, you might get just as jazzed about it as I do.

Most recently, I had the pleasure of listening to my freshman class give informational speeches.  Simply put, they were phenomenal.  My role is to listen, critique, give encouragement and feedback, but I found myself just being a comfortable audience member, taking in their knowledge and able to relax as they had the time well under control.  What a pleasure to not only hear their speeches but also to be assured that we have some fabulous adults on the way to our community.  They’re articulate, caring people who have a keen eye on the world.  Sharp and smart, these kids give me enormous confidence and I trust them completely – not only in my classroom but in their future roles.

In other classes we’re reading novels and I see their wheels actively turning.  My 8th graders thought they had a pretty good idea of what went on during WWII in Europe, but as we read, layers upon layers of stories are just waiting to be discovered.  They often begin with, “You mean they…?” when hearing about mistreatment of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and learning about the lengths Hitler and his ilk went to dominate the world.  I can see their mental appetites whet and they eagerly go home to research other heroes who took a stand against evil.  In Sophomore English we just finished The Grapes of Wrath.  At the beginning of our reading I told them, “You might love this book; you might hate it, but you certainly won’t forget it.”  We found ourselves experiencing both emotions while reading it but oh, have we learned!  Beyond the story is always something more (and more and more) and with a little poking, I heard their insights just yesterday.  One student put his finger right on the pulse of the novel when he made connections that many adults wouldn’t have.  With delight, I praised him.  Yes!  For years I’ve been reading with these kids and slowly showing them how to read fiction with their Christian eyeballs and to hear their insights as we sifted through a truly sad story, was heart-warming.  (See what you’re missing?!?)

Then there are those moments when I get to learn from them. I had the pleasure to see kindness in action when a student was feeling overwhelmed with a new concept.  Before I could reach her, the girl sitting next to her gently said, “It’s okay, you’ll get it.  Here, let me show you.”  Some days, an astute student will ask me a question that makes me re-think how I’m presenting something and I’m so thankful.   I must teach for how they learn, not necessarily in the way that I think will be more effective, but in a way that will actually help them grasp the concept.  Thankfully, they’re patient with me.

Beyond that are invitations to games, goodbye waves before they leave for the day, a hearty laugh at one of my puns…life is good. So I gladly sit in the front row, facing them, but also taking in all the goodness that sits in front of me.  Kids who are capable learners in so many ways…but more than that, they’re really cool people!

Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Moms know best

It was too quiet.  Usually her pencil flew across the page, eager to write with me.  Today, however, was different.  She sat morosely, sniffing, pencil frozen.  I tried my hand at light-heartedness -silence; I showed her my poem in progress – silence; I nudged her with an idea – silence.  15 minutes later, the situation hadn’t improved.  Time to text mom: “Please come now.”  We waited under a heavy blanket of awkwardness.  All smiles, mom came in and daughter burst into tears.  She didn’t want to do poetry and listed the reasons why it was too much to surmount.  Wise and patient, I was privileged to watch this mom calm her daughter, listen to her, empathize with her and then to tell her that she WAS going to do it.  I was surprised, but pleasantly so.  Willing to forgo a lesson that was pushing too many buttons, I set it aside as this mom insisted that her daughter push through her fears and uncomfortable perceptions and work harder.  I was impressed.

So often, I see how we parents are too quick to give our kids a pass on something that the child deems too hard.  In actuality, it is my firm belief that our kids are much stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for.  This mom knew that.  Happily, she’s not the only one.  A few years ago, Terri knew that her son needed one-on-one instruction.  She was right.  Schooled that way, he blossomed and covered two year’s content in one year (and the next and the next).  Pam knew that her son needed a boost, someone to encourage him and hold him accountable.  Laura knew that after a year of single instruction, her son needed a peer group.  Bethany knew that though her son felt he couldn’t work at a certain level, she put him where he’d be challenged and now he’s so proud of the work he is capable of doing.

These moms knew best!  What I value about them is that they know their children.  They know when to push and when to back off; when to wait and when to nudge.  Allowing your child to make some of their educational decisions is considerate; but making the tough ones for them based on what is seen in them is wise.

My own son is a little smarty-pants and a fantastic reader (I burst with pride) but he won’t sign up for a challenge.  So, I created one for him.  It was as simple as handing him a fat book with a “Here.  Read this.  I give you a month.”  His eyes gaped at Roots – the most obese book on our shelves.  Other adults, feeling sorry for this kid’s poor predicament, lamented that even they, great readers that they are, hadn’t read that book.  I toyed with the idea of letting him off the hook, especially since it was paired with his lack of verve.  But I remembered these moms I admire and kept the expectation that he would finish it.  Wouldn’t you know it?  He did.  And now I hear him referencing it proudly.  And as for my student who cried over writing poetry?  She dug deep and found that not only could she do it, but she did it so well that her peers admired her for her skill.

My kids aren’t old enough quite yet to realize how their mom has them figured out.  True, they surprise me sometimes, but I want to be the first one to say “You can do this.”  Sometimes we need to give them the mercy of bowing out of something, but more often then not, when all that seemed too hard is said and done, when they’ve listened to their moms, they’ll see that mom was right.

Apathy never

I remember it clearly: German class was about to start and Mr. Ter Haar was walking down the hallway.  His room was at one end of the building and the teacher’s lounge at the other.  As we waited for him, there was plenty of time for the class instigator to do his work.  While his friends kept watch from the door, Dave commandeered the chalk and in large block letters wrote: Apathy Now!!

As Dave slid innocently into his seat, Mr. Ter Haar strode in and took in the message.  Wow, did the guy explode!!  I bet more than half the class didn’t know what apathy meant but boy did we get an idea.  I looked up the word later and understood why the teacher’s face got red and the veins on his neck became quite pronounced.  What he said, I don’t remember but the passion behind his words were indelible.

Now, as a teacher myself, I’ve had a few kids express apathy about the subject that I love.  I get it – not everyone has to get as excited as I do about English.  But one thing I insist on is at least being open to learning.  Helen Keller said that as soon as she learned the connection between words and her world, invisible lines stretched between [her] spirit and and the spirits of others.  Some of my students would roll their eyes at that, but think about it – when we care, we’re linked to so much more than just what our minds can conceive on their own.  As our knowledge grows, our fields of inquiry broadens and our curiosity is rewarded.

But more than that cerebral stuff is my firm belief that God’s world is so interesting, so intricate, so involved that it’s just rude to tell Him in any way that we’re not willing to learn anything more about what He’s made.  There’s a reason that older people say the more they grow, the less they know.  We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s knowable and that leaves in me in awe of my Creator.

So I’ll continue to learn about myself, read as many books as time and wakefulness allow, and be curious about the interests of others.  Currently I know someone who traps for furs, someone who is an old truck conossiuer and another who plays rugby.  I know precious little about any of those subjects, but I love the people and I love the One who never runs out of something to surprise and amaze me.  Apathy?  Seriously?  Who has time?  Mr. Ter Haar, I’ve forgotten much of the German you’ve taught me but your nemesis Dave was a co-conspirator in teaching me one of my greatest lessons.  Danke Schon!

Something new and fresh for the teacher

When you’ve taught school for 20 years, you hear things like, “It must be so much easier now.” or, “It must be nice to have the summers off.” I think that means that there’s an assumption that I’ve a stack of files that I go to each week, pulling out what I need, knowing that it’ll work because I’ve done it dozens of times before.  Or, that summers are devoid of anything having to do with school.

I’m here to tell you – that’s not the case – for me, anyway.  With a sheepish shrug, someone just this week admitted that the reason he got out of teaching was because he was bored!   This man is creative and energetic and apparently, always up for something new.  But it was so refreshing to me because I’ve had the boredom demon nipping at my toes, too.  Thankfully, my role with kids who are always up for something new has allowed me to blend my need to teach something new and interesting to me – in new and interesting ways.

So although it’s true that a few novels just must be taught each year, my list of 14 novels this year includes some new ones, mostly because I keep reading and discovering novels out there that hold some fresh gems to me and my kids.   Perpetually gleaning, I’m finding unique expressions of words and concepts that inspire me to teach them in a way that captures my students’ interest. This in turn turns my creativity crank, making me an enthusiastic and excited teacher.  Just last week I was reading something and my wheels started turning…’maybe this would help my kids learn characterization….”  (This is how I think.)

I used to think, ‘why am I working so hard?’  Rewriting papers, designing files, customizing work for that student who sees life just a little differently….well, it’s because I love them and I love what I do and I’m fully aware just how blessed I am to have the job.  So my summers ‘off’ will continue to be spent searching for books to grab that boy’s attention, jotting down poetry ideas and developing my own writing because with material this good surrounding me, being bored is not an option.

How to be a successful student

I imagine there might be lots of places where one can find tips on how to be successful at school but I must throw my two cents in, as over 20 years of teaching, I’ve observed students practice what works and an equal number that practice what doesn’t.

Attach your passion to your study.  Such as, my daughter sings everything!  She also hates history facts.  So, sing them!  Replace song lyrics with facts.  Over the years we’ve changed the lyrics to everything from advertising jingles to top 10 songs on the radio.  It’s fun and quite easy!

Acknowledge your avoidance.  When I see it, I call it what it is.   Trying to avoid tackling an assignment, my kids stack  up non-essential tasks during homework time, hoping to avoid the inevitable.  I just call them on it!  They always sheepishly acknowledge it and interestingly, it seems to spur them on to just get on with it.  Not sure why….

Don’t repeat what doesn’t work.  Oddly enough, kids have ways of doing things that they don’t find successful, like guessing at how to spell a word or just cramming papers into their binder.  They seem puzzled when that doesn’t work.  Really?  Then why keep repeating the behavior? (Adults do this too) Sometimes we have to ask them to talk that one out.  What might work better?  They always know the answer.  Articulating is the missing piece to achieving it.

Engage your mind.  Everyone daydreams.  It’s healthy and normal.  However, when we intentionally choose to engage in what’s going on, we’re much more successful.   Kids can sit through a class and not hear a thing.  We adults assume they have.  Then there’s a clash of some variety when push comes to shove.  Students who own their learning, own their mind’s attentiveness.

Search for cues the teacher gives you to be successful…and take advantage of them.  For instance, I have the habit of always writing down the next day’s homework on the same corner of the whiteboard.  One student was perpetually in the dark about his homework.  When I asked him he said he didn’t know what the homework was.  Perplexed, I explained that I always write the homework down – and he has to pass that board on his way in and out of the classroom each day.  “Oh, I don’t actually read that.” I was speechless then; I’m speechless now.

Stay after….and ask questions!  Students who show an investment in their learning by asking about their work or grades or instructions are just bound to be successful.  That’s the time when the teacher can individualize, take the opportunity to modify or simply reassure the student that they’re on the right track.

Don’t let a setback set you back.  It’s very rare for students to get a straight A on everything.  The normal learner will encounter something that makes them work a little harder.  I love that moment as a teacher!  To see a mind pushed in a new direction, to make it stretch in a new way….we should rejoice.  Let the man or woman who’s been in their career for decades coast in their comfort zone.  If you’re in school, you should encounter new challenges and new demands on how you think.  Sometimes it’s when students learn a new language; for others, it’s the next level in math.  Whichever it is, embrace the challenge instead of getting down on yourself.  You’re bound to need that brain pathway to be opened for some other challenge that’s bound to come your way.