I teach, but I find education as a whole rather befuddling. Questions abound: How do we know if we're really helping students? Should we prepare students for the workforce or should we aim to improve their character? How much of what I do matters in light of the power of their genetics and culture? Should we aim to help students do what they love, or should we be pushing them to explore things they aren't familiar with? Do subject areas matter? Does this school system work like it's supposed to? Thoughtful educators grapple with these questions on a constant basis.
Here are four resources I've enjoyed recently that each explore these sorts of questions in their own way:
Frank McCourt's Teacher Man
A coworker loaned me Frank McCourt's Teacher Man and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an excellent book that both describes the social challenges of teaching and the difficulties in maintaining a seemingly normal life while trying to also be a teacher to a rotating cast of students. I could empathize with an enormous amount of McCourt's experiences, although it also taught me a little gratitude for the students I already have.
Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child
Through my local library, I listened to an audiobook of Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child and it surprised me a little. I agreed with most of the precepts in the book and I like how he consistently questioned the educational culture's fetishization of "Grit." Surprisingly, this book articulated the need for authentic assessment and evaluation better than most education books; in my experience, education books tend to put me to sleep, but this book was different. Kohn appears genuinely engaged with his content.
Jonathon Haidt has been on a podcast tour as of late, peddling The Coddling of the American Mind. I think this conversation's the best one I've heard so far in reference to the book. The hosts push him to clarify his ideas in ways that I didn't hear on CBC's Ideas. Haidt's ideas are interesting particularly in relation to Kohn's work (above). There's a lot of crossover in these people who insist that we need to learn to fail in natural ways as wee mature.
I enjoyed this episode of CBC's Spark because I struggle with my role in using Google in my classroom. I don't like using my classroom to teach students how to app. I know they use the language of "collaboration," but I fee as if the corporate nature of Google Classroom makes said collaboration more artificial. If you're collaborating in front of a screen... you're still spending more and more time in front of a screen. This episode is decidedly fair in how it treats corporate tech in the classroom.
A couple weeks ago, I finished listening to Sir Ken Robinson's The Element. The book acts as an accessible educational treatise and claims that we need to do better at preparing students for an unknowable future, one without a priority on standardized tests.
I can generally run with that. Standardized tests don't mean much beyond a student's ability to do that test that day; the breakdown of academic subjects is archaic and does not reflect the slushy reality of day-to-day living.
But I find the book's emphasis on "breaking the mold" a little... lacking. The overall tone seemed to reflect a direction in education that concerns me a little: I call it "TEDizeation."
TEDization refers to catering to the ideals that people see in TED talks. TED talks are popular, but not necessarily good. TED creates a false equivalence between the presenter and the research, and prioritizes inspiration over substance. People come out of these talks feeling good, but they don't necessarily carry the nuance needed for lasting change. I feel like The Element fits in that cookiecutter, insofar as it prioritizes passion, despite the ease by which our passions are misguided. It's not wrong... but it's artificial.
On You Are Not So Smart, a recent episode (embedded above) highlighted how our notions of the "self" change how we act like "fully realized" individuals. I've embedded it above. It's a good supplement to The Element, since Robinson's book comes off as highly self-indulgent. But I'll likely post more on that later.
But until then, I'd just like to exercise some caution about feeling like TED ideals are the ideals we want to imbue students with.
In 1997, while I was taking Comparative Civilizations 11 class at Stelly's Secondary School in Saanich, I chose to write a research paper on Stonehenge. I couldn't find enough on the topic at my school library, so I expanded my scope: I decided to visit UVic's McPherson Library instead. I distinctly remember searching for appropriate books on the computer and navigating the third floor mezzanine; I remember the old-paper smells, the stifling warmth, the entire atmosphere of that first-time library research experience.
After two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree that spread between 1998 and 2016, I've adapted to different library research processes. Through my undergrad, I used books and articles as much as possible; I'd spend hours in libraries, ordering the books in from other libraries, copying articles in the reading room, searching through microfiche, and now and then through JSTOR and other archives. I enjoyed this overall, perhaps because I got to spend so much time walking around, thinking, reading, assessing and whatnot. For my master's degree, between 2012-2016, however, I spent most of my research time in front of a computer, reading through pdfs of archived articles in various journals and ebook publications. I felt this wasn't quite as enjoyable, although this may have also been a matter of content.
In the classroom, I've noticed a similar process. Early in my teaching career, I developed some good research project assignments that gave students good research skills that they could apply to any library or resource. I had them use their school libraries as much as possible and they made some genuinely good assignments. Students got used to using tables of contents and indices, and got familiar with the ways we can find information in multiple places in a library. I enjoyed teaching this so much that I even made research projects with the students themselves.
But over the last few years, this has been distinctively more difficult and discouraging. Assignments intended to improve students' research skills, much like my own research project for my Master's, have moved largely online. And with that move, online problems have moved to the fore. The school library isn't being stocked in the ways I wish it was for their topics; instead, they're reading ebooks on a screen. This is their normal, so I can't complain too much. But it certainly seems problematic when I feel like they haven't learned the basics of how to assess whether a text is legitimate or not.
In light of the "fake news" phenomenon, there's something to be said about how easy it is to self-publish an ebook, post it to Google Books, and have it appear as a legitimate source. As much as I've tried to create assignments and ideas that help students sift through the legions of unedited sources out there, there's no easy answer for them.
I need to find ways to help them understand how to assess these sorts of books critically. I also, however, distinctly remember spending time in the public library myself, taking time at the end of the day to do the research work when the school library didn't make the cut. It's hard for me to sympathize fully with them when I know the work I would have done to make my own work... work. I like that the Internet has made so much information more accessible, but it's made people expect information to be at their fingertips. Even with access to the UVic libraries' database, I always was ready to look for physical books myself, to take a walk and search through the indices of a tangible book.
Ironically, there's a public library branch right next to the school where I work. I have feeling, however, that I use it far more than most of my students ever would. And as much as I know this is related to my upbringing and age, I find it sad that I can't seem to motivate students to check out the library themselves. I need to find a way to make that happen despite myself.
So how do I make visiting the library more appealing to my students?
So the run of A Flea in her Ear finished. It was rather successful: we had a good audience every night, we each put our all into each of the parts, we found ways to cover up our mistakes. There was a lot of laughter and sharing backstage and people seemed to be on the same page: adults working together to finish a project.
On Sunday night, I crashed, mentally and physically. As soon as the responsibilities of the play finished, all the energy I'd put in to keeping all these tasks in the air seemed to melt away. I went to the school to start catching up on planning and marking, but couldn't seem to think straight. I tripped on the stairs a few times, walked into doorways, and stared into the middle distance. Clearly I needed a break.
One thing my brain keeps rolling back to: my kids didn't get to see the show. I'd like to think they would have enjoyed it. I don't know how to get over that, other than to think "That's just how life is." But all that's still confusing to me, no matter what.
So at this point I've fallen behind at work and am struggling to catch up. By the end, those rehearsals and performances took up over 20 hours a week of time, 40 for the week of the opening, and I naturally fell behind at my full-time job. In addition to that, I was still falling behind when we were merely rehearsing, even before we'd moved into the theatre itself. So I have weeks of marking and raggle-taggle planning to catch-up on and recover from. I don't have the energy to just push myself to get it all caught-up, so I'm scrambling every day.
Doing something as social as a play highlights the loneliness of teaching, the way one huddles in their room to mark and plan. Although I try to talk with colleagues as much as possible, I spend most of my worktime alone. This is particularly difficult at the end of the day, when I need to be the most self-motivated, but find myself drained. So far I haven't recovered enough to beat the loneliness. I feel myself aching for some company, like "Could somebody just sit with me while I get this marking and stuff done, so I don't wear my time away on the Internet?" I know that I'll be OK, particularly once I'm caught up on marking, but it's still very lonely right now.
I've attended a few different Professional Learning activities over the last few months. The speakers who most inspired me seemed to find ways to make their jobs more meaningful and holistic. I want that. I always wanted that. I don't think I'm good at this "be a teacher at work, be a person at home" thing. I want to be the same person in most of my life, not somebody trying to play different games against one another. I don't remember who said it, but somebody (perhaps here?) said something about how they hated the idea of a "work-life balance," because it implied a disconnection between the two, because it implied that work and life were disconnected, that we could divorce ourselves from life. I get that, because I've never wanted that disconnection.
Right now I'm struggling with it, though, because it feels pretty disconnected. I do my work stuff and it has little to nothing to do with my everyday life.
On that note, I need to go attend a work-related meeting. And I hope I can make the best of it.
I saw this link in my Twitter feed:
I read the article, skimmed the comments, and replied to it in my own Twitter feed:
This term, I've been experiencing some of the most mentally taxing teaching of my life. I have five different "preps," English 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. My more senior classes each have between 26 and 30 students. My junior classes feature a "spread" between students who are designated as "gifted" and those who are capable of work at a "Grade 3 or so" level. Simultaneously I'm trying to adapt to BC's new curriculum, which is adding an enormous amount of work to an already overworked mental space. Although I'm sure I'll get through, by my standards things are not going well at work.
Beyond this, I don't have many responsibilities. My children live far away right now. I'm in a play, though, and that takes up 12 hours a week with rehearsals with an additional 4 hours of driving each week. That play will be all done by the end of November, but right now it's pretty taxing. If I'd realized just how large my classes would be this term, I doubt I would have auditioned for the play.
In the meantime, since I'm not doing exceptionally well at planning for my classes, I'm scrambling at work. This is the sort of time when teachers should take "sick days" to catch up on rest and whatnot, but I don't feel like I can do it because I haven't planned well enough for the classes. I'd be releasing a poor Teacher-On-Call to the wolves. It just wouldn't work. But I'm going to have to, probably just after I finish report cards, which are due next Wednesday.
This is nothing new for teaching. Large classes, report cards, parent teacher interviews are the norm. However, I do believe the number of responsibilities for teachers have increased with the advent of technologies like email and the Internet. Students submit their work in a myriad of formats; I am expected to read and understand practically every email that crosses my feed, whether it's from a colleague, parent, administrator, or student. I'm expected to keep up with a website in order to keep in contact with parents. It's just too much to keep track of. I find myself spending hours at the school just trying to get the most basic marking and planning done. It's exhausting.
Many of these roles simply weren't required before the advent of technologies that normalized them. Notes home and face to face interviews tended to dominate the communication cycle. I know it would have been stressful, but I think it would feel more real, more authentic. The fact is that I do an enormous amount of digital work that could very well not pay off and distracts from my work in the classroom. I don't like it.
In response to this stress level, I've started looking into ways to not spend so much time in the classroom in order to decrease the marking and planning aspects. I like educating, but the marking feels more and more futile every year. I'd like to find a side hustle in order to keep things fresh in my life. As much as I enjoy playing at a restaurant on the weekends, I'd love to be able to do a little more.
In a couple weeks, parent-teacher interviews will take place; there's an education conference in the middle of the month on the same Thursday and Friday that open the play. And then the play finishes on the 25th.
But this too shall pass. On the 26th, I'll have nothing but work to do and preparations for Winter Break. And I've treated myself to a birthday present: a nosebleed ticket to the Leafs-Canucks game in Vancouver on December 2nd.
But this month, as exciting as it will be, as many positive, empowering things as there are to do, couldn't end any sooner.
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