Sunday, December 13, 2015

Turning Corners in My Teaching Career

Sebastian Ballard [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have to admit that somewhere in my teaching career I turned a corner. Twice.

It’s not that I don’t love Spanish any more; I love language and the logic behind it. I love discovering new words and connections to other words, and I love when the lights come on for students. Teaching Spanish is fun!

At some point, I realized that I love teaching. It doesn’t matter the subject (gasp), I just love helping others learn. And I think it shows. It’s exciting and I like to share that excitement. Reading books, attending training sessions, reading educator and administrator blogs, listening to other teachers-all of these are thrilling and inspiring. I love to learn new ways to teach, and I love to experiment. Teaching is fun!

In an ideal world, I can go to work each day and have the time of my life. There are new lessons to craft, and old lessons to tweak. My “unread bookshelf” is full and I am reading any number of books all at the same time.

Back in the real world, some days aren’t as awesome as others. At times I go home discouraged, tired and overwhelmed, and I need to distance myself from it, at least for a time.

It’s not that I don’t love teaching any more; I still love to teach. There is a thrill in implementing a new idea, in stretching myself to grow through failure or success, and in helping my students to do the same.

But, I’ve realized that I have turned another corner.

I love my students. I love each of them, regardless of yesterday, today, or tomorrow. 

Love is a choice, like my career. I choose to love them; it is my decision to make. 

Love is a calling, like my career. I am called to love them; it is my responsibility to do it.

What sends me home depressed at the end of the day? An unsuccessful lesson? No. A grammar error I made? No. A jam in the copy machine. No.

It is the relationships. I share in my students’ joys and sorrows. I worry about them, grieve over them, celebrate with them, and sometimes communicate my frustration to them. I want to see each of my students become a man or woman of honor, to choose what is right over what is convenient, to take responsibility for himself or herself.

Their success or failure is not ultimately up to me. But I have a role to play. I can believe in my students. I can show them the right way. I can challenge them to care and to dare.

I love when I hear from or about my former students:
  • one is in medical school;
  • two are pursuing doctorate degrees in the sciences;
  • several have graduated from Ivy League schools;
  • one has graduated from the Naval Academy;
  • three former students now teach in our school district;
  • one is currently serving with the Peace Corps in Paraguay;
  • one is in graduate school to become a Spanish teacher (awesome!);
  • several serve in the military;
  • many are raising families;

But there are other stories:
  • my students often move away (transience is a large issue in our school);
  • some students bounce in and out of classes, or in and out of cyber, alternative, and public school;
  • at least three of my former students went to prison from high school;
  • many of my former students dropped out of high school;
  • at least five of my former students have died from alcohol, drug use, careless accident or suicide;
  • more than a dozen of my former students have had criminal charges against them, and many continue in that lifestyle.

It can be very discouraging.

But I cannot give up.

My students today have not made their choices.

I do not know the future.

Therefore, I choose to love today. I cannot fix their yesterday, but I can help with today, and I can invest in tomorrow.

The choice is theirs, but I am going to be the best coach, encourager, parent, teacher that I can.

I choose to love. 

Teaching comes second.


Spanish comes third.

I choose to love! 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Learning Is a Messy Process, Not a Tidy Product

I am learning a lot about learning, and about teaching, by spending time working with my dad in his carpentry barn.

  As the end of the school year neared, I proposed some summer projects to my dad: a "covered bridge" birdhouse and bird feeder. My dad said, "See if you can find a pattern/plan on the internet". Easily done, right? No. There were photos but no design instructions (well, there were some plans, if I wanted to pay $80). I printed a few of the photos and sat down with my dad.
   For my dad this was not a problem. In his mind's eye, he already had some ideas, and he tried to help me visualize the end product as well: "How big do you want it?" "Do you want ramps, like the entrance/exit to the bridge?" "Do you want to hang it from a hook or mount it on a pole?" "What color do you want?" The questions came as he sketched a simple pattern and guesstimated the sizes. To finish he sent me home with a list of supplies to bring next time (Home Depot alert: there's a rookie wandering the aisles!).

   Throughout the summer we worked in the barn and I practiced my skills with the table saw and circular saw, the router, drill, sander and other tools. As I learned skills, I learned a lesson in thinking.
   My dad saw this project as a challenge--who needs a pattern, anyway? Here's just a portion of his learning process:

  • measure and think;
  • measure and think;
  • if using others' ideas, analyze what they did and see how you want to change or adapt;
  • begin creating;
  • stop and think;
  • saw, glue, nail, screw;
  • measure;
  • stop and think;
  • "tweak"
  • saw, glue, nail, screw;
  • find weaknesses or obstacles;
  • (start over if your daughter screws up too badly)
  • stop and think;
  • look at product, hold it, turn it, think;
  • try a solution;
  • undo and try another solution;
  • cut, glue, nail, screw;
  • sand, varnish, torch (who knew you could burn wood to give it great color?!);
  • inspect;
  • celebrate!

If only you could have seen me as I came home carrying my finished products!

The bird feeder almost finished

One of our side projects was creating and laying a new floor in the barn.

Learning is often messy, taking unexpected twists, turns, detours, and even restarts. It also involves a fair amount of creativity, supported by confidence: if this doesn't work, I'll try something else! Learning also is about the process more than the final product--my greatest joy was in sharing this time with my dad and learning from him. The experience would have been worth it even if I had never completed my project!

I need to provide more opportunities for my students to learn in this manner. To accomplish this, I must develop in them confidence so that they will try, support so that they can fail and restart, curiosity and creativity so that they will view the learning process as more important than the final learning itself.

Can I deal with the chaos of a "messy" learning process? 

Can I teach my students to do the same? 

I am certainly going to try!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

2048 and Metacognition

While attending the KTI Summit I was introduced to the 2048 game ( It’s a game of logic where you try to combine numbers until achieving 2048. We learned how to play the game mostly through trial and error. Soon I could claim addiction, and even a couple of wins (but then you’re faced with the challenge of attaining 4096).
This week I shared 2048 with my parents.  At first I talked and explained which direction I was going to choose and why. In a short time we were conferring about the possible moves and their consequences. Then as I had them take over, we had a running conversation:
  • “How can I get these two tiles together?”
  •  “What will happen if I go left instead of right?”
  •  “I am going to move up because…”
  •  “I’m not going to move up because…”
  •  “What do you want to do with these tiles?”
  •  “What is a good strategy for clumping numbers?”
  •  “Why might you want to keep your highest number in a corner?”
  •  “I’m about to lose; do you see any way out?”
  •  “Wow! Why didn’t I see that?”

We were thinking about our thinking and verbalizing these thoughts, and together we made wiser decisions and understood better our purpose and strategies for achieving our goal of winning.

“Thinking aloud” is an essential component in teaching students metacognitive practices; when we can teach them to verbalize their thoughts they become more aware of the processes that occur, and can consequently channel them to define purpose and develop strategic plans. Instead of teaching students information, we teach students how to learn for themselves.

I plan to use 2048 as a tool to show students the value of “thinking aloud” and of metacognitive awareness—I want to teach them to think about their thinking in order to move them toward independence in their learning.

Or perhaps I just want more excuses to play the game…