Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Let Me Count the Ways

I lost a great friend and teacher this week, someone who taught us all about the joy of numbers. Come on over to the New York Times and read "Farewell, Count von Count" about the legacy of Jerry Nelson and all those other teachers who shape our lives.

Richard Hutchings Photography

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"50 Best Back-to-School Articles for Parents"

Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, of Psychology Today and Roots of Action, has created a comprehensive list of the "50 Best Back-to-School Articles for Parents" that's worth a read. She hits every subject from technology, to family, to learning, to discipline. My post, "Happiness in the Classroom" is in there, at #5, under "Learning and Achievement," and I'm honored to be in such august company. There are some really wonderful writers and educators in her list.

I've spent the last couple of hours reading through the list and there are some wonderful resources for parents and teachers, so check it out here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Finding Happiness in the Last Week of Summer

This is it. The last week before school starts. I'm fine once the students arrive, and I take my place with them in the classroom, but the week leading up to the first day is always difficult for me. The anticipation hits a peak in this last week and I tend to lose my head a little bit.

I've prepared my lessons, my classroom, my materials for the first day of school, so all that's left to do is obsess about what else I should be doing to prepare for the coming year.

This year, I am trying something new. In this last week, I am focusing on my home, my family, and my health. In the days leading up to Monday and Tuesday's all-day faculty meetings, and the first day of school on Wednesday, my focus is on happiness at home.

First, health.

My summer diet tends to be plant-based, as I have plowed up much of our yard to make way for vegetable gardens. I love walking outside in the afternoon in order to assemble dinner based on what's ripe. Along with those vegetables, however, we eat a lot of bread and cheese. I make my own butter and ice cream in the summer, out of the beautifully yellow cream of Lee Robie's cows. And because tI don't get up as early in the summer, my husband Tim and I drink more wine to go with all of that bread and cheese.

This last week of summer, the fruits of my garden will be consumed in the form of juice, juice, and more juice. My friend Tom Ryan, author of Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog and an Extraordinary Friendship, has spent his summer on a 70-day juice fast in order to break the cycle of his unhealthy diet and weight gain. He drank his way through the summer and through his book tour for the paperback edition of Following Atticus, and as a result, he's 80 pounds lighter as he begins this new phase of his life. I thought I'd do a shorter, modified juice fast this week in order to clarify my mind and jump-start my health as enter this new year. My fast is amended slightly in order to accommodate dinner with my family. I drink vegetable juice all day and then prepare a vegetarian, mostly raw dinner to share with my husband and sons at our dinner table. No alcohol, no caffeine, and no animal products. I'm feeling great - save for the caffeine withdrawal headache.

Here's what my daily juice ingredients look like. There's also a sink full of kale and chard next to this lovely pile of vegetables from my garden, and all of that becomes about two quarts of juice. I drink that all day, plus one small glass before dinner with the family. Last night's dinner was vietnamese spring rolls filled with rice noodles and raw veggies, dipped in chili-garlic sauce, hoisin and peanuts. Heaven.

Second, home.

I've been writing so much this summer that all of those projects I meant to complete this summer simply  never happened. I meant to re-side a few areas of my house that were rotting, make repairs to the chicken tractor, expand the raspberry patch, fix the rabbit tractor, create two new compost bins, paint over the green screen my kids installed last year in the playroom, and a few other stupid, small tasks. I completed exactly none of these tasks, and this feels terrible. I am used to filling my summer days with the active, tiring work of improving my home, and to reach the end of the summer and realize how much time was lost to an indoor, sedentary life is a real bummer.

So, yesterday, day one, of this last week of summer, I replaced the rotting siding on the lower third of the front of the house, the lower third of the back of my garage, and began repainting the areas that most needed scraping and a new coat of paint.

Today will be spent scraping and painting that garage and completing the second coat on the front of the house. If I have time, I will re-side the lower part of the back of the house.

Last week, Larry Ferlazzo asked me to submit a short piece on how I prepare for the first day of school for his EdWeek blog, which you can find here. When he asked me to write those words, I stuck to the subject of the classroom, but If he were to ask me to write that same piece today, I would have to mention how important it is for teachers to spend some time on themselves, their homes, and their families. Everything will fall into place when the students arrive on Wednesday, August 29, but if our homes are not in order, we won't be giving our students or our families everything they deserve.

This year, happiness in the classroom starts with happiness at home.

Update: front of the house re-painting complete, as long as you do not look at the dormers. I am afraid of heights and Tim won't let me put on my climbing harness and shoes and attach myself to a rafter. Believe me, I thought of it...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Learn to Fail Well: One Student's Response to Red Ink

I received the following comment to my post "Out of the Red" in the form of an email, and felt it deserved its own space. If ever there was a student who lived in fear of the nefarious symbolic and psychic power of red ink, it was this student, and yet somehow...she survived - nay, thrived. I so appreciate her articulate response. 

There are, however, a couple of typos in it; I hope she doesn't mind if I highlighted them in red. 

[Dear Jess,]

In short - please don't stop using red ink (at least the figurative kind). You or any of the other incredible middle school and high school teachers we so unknowingly lean on as we grow up. I wish I had encountered more red ink in middle/high school, and it makes me very sad to think our response to studies like Rutchick's is to stop.

I understand Rutchick's premise - red ink is associated with errors and poor performance, therefore, students completing tasks in red ink have increased quantities of errors in comparison to there black ink counterparts. I can't read the full article, and this in and of itself begs a lot of questions (is this intrinsic to red, or any contrasting color to black?  And is the argument this is a social construct associated w the color red, or any color first used to identify fault in the study?), but that's a different story. What I can't understand is the "and so" conclusion inevitable here - and so, we should not use red ink??? Maybe if the following are true - books like Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, The Iliad and the Odyssey are challenging reads for students under the age of 18 - they struggle and loose faith in their ability to critically think...so we should not read them. OR asking students to stand up in front of their peers and present, either a personal piece or a powerpoint, is incredibly anxiety inducing - they often feel frustrated and embarrassed by their performance...so they should not have present. OR (my favorite) asking a student an open ended question is a task beyond a <18yo brain - they find it paralyzing, sometimes tear inducing...so we shouldn't. If the theme of education is that points of stress and anxiety are counterproductive to learning,  or that committing to an idea to only be told that it's wrong hinders education (points that there is quite a bit of literature against) then yes, red pen must also be lumped into a similar category I suppose.

As the student who found open ended questions paralyzing, let me admit to one of my other major flaws - my fear of the red pen. I hate it - it makes me feel hurt, inadequate, frustrated, and angry all at once...and I did not see it enough growing up. Instead, it was a periodic grading injury, easily seen, felt and then quickly forgotten. As a result, I graduated from high school incredibly afraid of the red pen and all it had to represent... and I really regret that. Middle and high schools put students through all sorts of painful experiences that we NEED more of - standing up and presenting in front of you peers for the first time (I thought, no hoped, I was going to die right then and there), learning how to problem solve with problematic classmates, doing a science experiment wrong 10 times in order to finally understand how to do it correctly. We don't attend school to be comfortable, we are put there b/c it pushes us...and pushing isn't easy, and sometimes it hurts. I would argue that middle and high school is exactly where the red pen NEEDS to be - it's where anxiety and fear of failure needs to be. But as teachers, mentors and parents - isn't it our job to guide the student through that experience, not steer them away? To teach them to recognize feelings of anxiety, of failure, of frustration and then overcome? The most successful peers I had the chance to be around as a graduate student and a resident are phenomenal failers (I know this is not a word, but I do not mean "failures", I mean "failers") - they're not handicapped by the figurative red pen, but they've learned to lean into it, to recognize why it's necessary and reap the benefits of that correction, as opposed to remain cowering in the corner trying, paralyzed by the anxiety of being wrong. I struggle in the latter group, trying late and hard to learn to step out of that group in my late 20s...and I wish someone had made me do it in the safety of middle and high school. 

Whether educators chose to put dont down the red pen or no, I hope they dont put down all that it symbolizes. No matter your students future profession, whether they steer towards a chronic education path like mine or enter the workforce right out of school, one thing is for certain - they may not use their AP Calculus knowledge, and they may never truly need to remember what year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed....but they are going to fail, and fail gloriously. Right now, on a national level, our students are arguable under-educated in the fields of reading, math and science...lets not also deprive them on the opportunity to learn to fail well. 

Note: this response was also added into the comments over at The Core Knowledge blog, where this post also appears. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happiness in the Classroom

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

It's August, and my attention is beginning to drift back to school. This happens every year. In June, I can't wait to get out of my classroom, to return to my home and family, to the tasks and responsibilities that have eluded me all year. And then, right around August 1, I can't wait to return to my students; my other family, my other home.

Last week, I returned to my classroom to consider what needs to be done before school starts.

The answer: Yikes. A lot.

I have been at this teaching thing for a while now. I know what I have to do to prepare for the new school year from an academic perspective, but I want to do something new this year, something that makes my classroom a welcoming and supportive place to learn. I considered new posters, bulletin boards, organizational schemes - all the usual teacher tricks. Those help - they certainly give my students something to look at when their attention wanders - but they are not enough. They are not what make my classroom a home, and that's what I want to give my students this year.

(c) Leslie Fandrich's Happy Mighty Party Photos

And then, thanks to the confluence of the stars and some kind friends, I found myself on a glorious terrace in New York City, celebrating the release of Gretchen Rubin's new book, Happier at Home. It's the follow-up to her massively huge New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. I read The Happiness Project a long time ago and loved it, even before I found out that I have friends in common with Gretchen. As far as I knew, her book was just another nonfiction bestseller blurbed by A.J. Jacobs, and if it's blurbed by A.J., it's good enough for me.

Gretchen's books chronicle her efforts to be happier in her life, and about halfway through Happier at Home, I realized that most of her ideas translate beautifully to the classroom. Gretchen has become a hero to millions of readers, the inspiration for countless personal happiness projects taking place across the country. All I know is that she's a lovely woman whose ideas have managed to touch more readers than I can imagine...including my mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law, Kate, was thrilled when she found out I had attended Gretchen's launch party. She revealed that she keeps 18 of Gretchen's best "Happiness" hints (the chapter headings) in her desk as inspiration.

I told Kate I was thinking about taking Gretchen's tips into my middle school classroom, and asked her to distill her list down to five of her favorite tips. She went through her 18 cards and come up with:

1. Be yourself.
2. Act the way you want to feel.
3. Remember to be grateful.
4. Forget about results.
5. Ask for help.

These are just perfect. Five rules for inspiring happiness in my students and five rules for maintaining my own happiness in the classroom. Here, in the order Kate read them to me over the phone, are my goals for the 2012-2013 school year:

1. Be yourself. Students respond to authenticity. When I love what I am teaching them, they love what I am teaching them. Okay - not always, but most of the time. Students know when their teachers are engaged, comfortable in our skins, and authentically themselves. When we fake enthusiasm, or affection, or authority, they know. They always know.

2. Act the way you want to feel. Yes. I know I just said that teachers have to be honest, but come on. We all have those days. While I love my job, and am excited to go to work nearly every day, there are days that are hard. I am human, but even when I feel tired, sad, angry, or frustrated, I still have to stand up in front of class and be my best self. I hate the term, "fake it 'till you make it," but there's some truth there. If I act happy and enthusiastic about my lessons, I can keep the momentum rolling just long enough for a student to get happy and enthusiastic, and that's all it takes. The ball is rolling, and inertia takes over. The way I want to feel becomes the way I feel. Works every time.

3. Remember to be grateful. I am so appreciative of this tip. I know, Oprah, Christianity, Buddhism, whatever - it may be trite, it's still relevant. My favorite moment of the week is our middle school meeting on Wednesday morning. We make time for "compliments" at the beginning, and the students never fail to amaze me with the moments they recognize and make public to their classmates. "I'd like to compliment Mary because she notices when someone is down," or "I'd like to compliment John because he held the door for me today when my books were falling out of my hands," or "I'd like to compliment Mrs. Smith because she noticed the class was stressed out and she reduced our homework load." It's a magical time for me, and every week, I know I will have a few moments to remember why I love my students and my job.

4. Forget about results. I am frustrated by the importance placed on grades in my classroom, and every year, I attempt to create a focus on the process of learning rather than the results. More often than not, it falls flat, but sometimes, it sinks in. I taught one girl who resisted this message for three years, and in her last months of eighth grade, she made sure to let me she'd been listening. She's still acutely aware of her results, but she also understands that her journey is about letting go and enjoying the ride. That's all I can hope for, I suppose, and I am proud of her realization. My students are a work in progress, so my concession to the process is that I can't expect finished, polished works of art. They are masterpieces, but like Michaelangelo's "Unfinished Slaves," they are emerging masterpieces, and not of my design. They will have their own stories to tell.

5. Ask for help. I am stubborn. So stubborn. I don't like asking for help, because I'd rather spend hours looking for the answers myself than admit that I don't know something. However, this past year, I have opened myself up to the idea that my colleagues have a lot of expertise and information to give, and all I have to do is ask. I admitted to my math phobia and asked my colleague, Alison Gorman, for lessons in Algebra I. I stopped bluffing when it came to the holes in my knowledge of history and asked my colleague, history teacher extraordinnaire Peter Tenney, to help me fill in the gaps. You know what? They were flattered and honored to be asked, and our work relationship is stronger for the request. Best of all, my students have watched me ask for help, watched me admit to my weaknesses. Too often, teachers want to be seen as infallible, but the sooner I can disabuse my students of this notion, the better. We all need help, we all need support, and I am grateful to be reminded of this fact.

So thank you, Gretchen, for reminding me of this. For reminding me how to be happier in my classroom. Because when those first students wander in on August 31, it no longer a classroom. It is my home.

(c) Sheri Silver, www.sherisilver.com

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Wow. I am so honored to be in such august company. The New York Times has named me one of the "33 Educators We Admire," and I could not be more humbled, excited, and eager to get back in to my classroom.  Three weeks left!