1 New Lesson on Caring Teachers

From the minute the bearded man in the black suit and ponytail took the stage, all eyes of the choir were on him. He was the conductor, so that’s to be expected. What’s to be hoped for, but not always expected is the change in students’ eyes and smiles in the brief seconds as he prepared them to begin their two pieces.

Last night, at a school spring music concert here in the Czech Republic, I admit to being unaware of where we were in the program at least 70% of the time. I clapped when we all clapped, I chuckled when we all chuckled. Otherwise, I was going through the motions.

That was what struck me about the change in these young singers when their teacher took the stage. The look they gave him and the overall shift in composure when he was interacting with them signaled that this is a good teacher.

I’ve worked with teachers and students all over the world, and it’s never struck me as clearly as it did last night that the look I saw was universal. More finely put, it was a visual manifestation of a caring relation in action. When thinking about the ethic of care in the past, my focus has been turned to the one caring and the cared for. I’m worried about whether those I care for recognize it as care. I’m not ever concerned with what it looks like on the outside.

I realized last night night, when people are engaged in a caring relation, those on the outside can see it. It draws us in. I don’t play an instrument, and it’s been more than a decade since I tried to sing anything other than along with whatever music is streaming on my computer. Still, I wanted to be in this teacher’s class. I wanted him to teach my one-day children. If I were leading a school, I’d have considered slipping him my card.

Yes he knew his content and how to help students access it. Each piece in the concert evidenced this. But, only when I saw him interact with the students was I able to say, “This is a good teacher.”

Now I’m thinking back to demo lessons and interviews. Was content and technical proficiency really what mattered in selecting new faculty members? Partially, yes. A math teacher who’s no good with numbers and great with kids doesn’t sound like a good hire. A candidate who is proficient and great with kids, though, this strikes me as someone to be considered more closely.

I’ve always thought demo lessons a strange activity. When considering an entire group of students’ learning, watching a stranger teach them for 15 minutes isn’t going to give me much on their overall approach or effectiveness. Those teachers who end that 15 minutes and no longer feel like strangers to that classroom — those are the ones to keep around.

Friends who argue with me time and again when I attack their data-driven instruction as anti-humanist are equally flummoxed by me when I hold to the claim that you “just know” a good teacher when you see them. For our next bout, though, I’ll have a new line of reasoning ready. It turns on the old axiom, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I know a good teacher because, like the conductor last night, the caring is clear in their teaching.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Whether in formal evaluative observations or when peers sit in on a class, ask for feedback on where visitors saw evidence of the ethic of care in action and how they came to that conclusion.
  • When checking references on a potential new hire, ask “And how did you know they cared for students?” It’s likely to throw the conversation in a different direction. Good, it’s about time.
  • At the end of a project or unit of study, ask students to reflect on where they saw evidence of your caring for them. Be prepared for some tough love from students you have a difficult time reaching and those you think you’ve got a great connection with. Most importantly, be open to that feedback and considering how you might shift your practice in the future.

Things I Know 363 of 365: ‘And over there, let’s build a lyceum’

I’ve just added another book to the to-read pile. Gary just suggested Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall. It came with this recommendation:

El Sistema is SO heavy on a million different levels. There are a bazillion lessons to take from it, not the least of which is that the compromises we make reflexively in the name of pragmatism, incrementalism or budget shortfalls are not only wrong, but unnecessary.

When Gingrich talks about learning the dignity of work, the first thing educators should ask is, “does their schoolwork have dignity?” Then we should look at efforts like El Sistema where a work ethic is developed while doing something complex, meaningful, beautiful and spiritually uplifting.

Don’t be thrown off by the prominence of Dudamel in the title. This book is about education, culture, children and transformation.

My interest is effectively piqued.

It’s also got me thinking of a course I’d like to see in every school in the country. For a working title, let’s call it Synthesis. The goal would be to give student the space and resources to develop deep understandings of the connections between the ideas they’re encountering in whatever other courses in which they’re enrolled.

It comes from frequent frustration last semester of not having a space to converse with other students on how the ideas from my different courses were melting together in my brain. I could write about it online and in papers for my professors’ eyes only, but I wanted discussion and, well, synthesis.

Each week of the course would require students to prepare a brief on their learning across courses in the previous week. The question guiding the brief: How did your classes intersect this week? From there, discussions would ensue with students introducing the nascent connections in their minds and asking for help from their peers in the massaging and upkeep of those connections.

Throughout the course, larger creations would also be asked for, wherein students pulled an over-arching idea that made up a decent amount of the connective tissue of his learning and presented the idea as he understood it to the rest of the class. Think of it as Aristotle’s Lyceum, but for credit.

Imagine the power in asking students to find and tease out connections between algebra, United States history, and biology. Imagine what listening to these discussions could do to inform teachers’ practice.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to imagine the structure and planning that would need to go into constructing such a shift of mind around thinking of learning as a continuous and connected act.

Classy: What we mean when we talk about creativity and collaboration (get in on this)

I didn’t plan any of the below. All I was doing was looking for some creativity-inspiring journal prompts. What resulted has no lesson or unit plans. I’m not sure where it’s going or what it will become. I am certain, however, that something beautiful started in my classroom Wednesday.

January 31: Jabiz Raisdana posts the results of his first month participating in The Daily Shoot.

February 2: I see the post and comment on how impressed I am with the act of creation Jabiz is embarking on each day. I ask if it’s ok to use some of the photos as journal prompts in my class. Later, he comments back welcoming the use of the photos as inspiration. I create an assignment on moodle that says:

The students file in and log in.

The result of a 2-hour delay due to weather, our abbreviated class is spent mostly trawling the photos and creating.

I enjoy answering the question of “What are we supposed to write?” with “Whatever you want.”

February 3: Jabiz posts a letter to my students, explaining the process up to this point and what their comments mean to him. He poses some important questions about collaboration, creation and connection. Most importantly, he challenges them:

So what of it now? What happens next? Well that is up to you. I hope that this introduction can be a way that we continue to explore the power of art and words and connections. I was a born teacher and student, I would love to continue to teach and learn from you. Are you up for it?

Before sharing the post, I pull up Google Earth to add perspective to the distance between Philadelphia, PA and Jakarta, Indonesia (half the world).

Additionally, Jabiz comments he’s culling their creations to create a song, and promises to share it soon.

I share the link to the post on moodle and invite the students to share their answers to Jabiz’s questions.

Students begin to comment.

February 4: Students continue to comment in answer to Jabiz’s creative challenge. The comments build off of the thinking of the other students. Later, Jabiz responds to each idea, asking questions and offering commentary. At the end, he posts the lyrics of the song composed of my students’ lines of poetry.

I start a google doc and share it with Jabiz, trying to give form to the students’ suggestions.

Jabiz posts an initial recording of the song to his blog, raising the ante:

Here you go SLA, my song to you. What will you do with it? Download it. Remix it. Add your voice to it. Set it to images. Create a video. Rap it. This version is only a draft and is not even close to being “done.” Tear it up!

SoundCloud is blocked within the school’s filter wall. All I’m able to do is show the students what Jabiz has written.

It is enough.

We begin a new brainstorming session in both sections of the participating classes as to where we can take this from here. The students build off of their original ideas. My writers want to write more, my documentarians want to document the creative, collaborative process, my musicians want to rework the song or create something new. My linguists want to ask Jabiz’s ESL students to post comments to photos we take in their first languages so that my students can learn these other languages. The ideas are bubbling over.

Later, Canadian teacher Bryan Jackson records his own version of the song, which Jabiz posts to his blog.

By the end of class, one of my students, Luna, has taken it upon herself to copy the lyrics of the song and create a wordle. She then visits each picture and copies all of the students’ comments to create a collective wordle of the initial words Jabiz’s photos inspired.

Today: You jump in and create something.