It’s Alright to Cry

September 21, 2011

The fact that I know Rosey Grier sang this places my age in a certain category…

The school year has begun, which explains why I am simultaneously happy and exhausted.  Much time is spent in the first few weeks just learning the routines.  This time is well-spent, but it is sometimes a little tiring just practicing how to be a thoughtful student without actually getting to the “meat” of the curriculum.

Our first week of school, like much of the last part of the summer, was wet.  Day after day of rain reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s story “All Summer in a Day,” about a school on Venus where children are going to see the sun for the first time they can remember (it happens only every seven years).  It ends up being a story about the way children are and is sad.  If you haven’t read it, you can do an online search and find a pdf of it on various sites.

Having thought of this story, I decided that, despite the tight schedule, I was going to read this aloud to my language arts group.  I love to read aloud to any group, and it’s one of the things my advisee group is known for as the year goes on.

I read the story, and the students were enthralled, wrapped up in the rainy world and the prospect of sun.  We got to the end, and I choked up as usual.  One of my students asked, with some amazement, “Are you crying?”  I explained that I was a little teary, yes.  And one of my advisees said, “That happens a lot when she reads aloud,” and then, “Do you need a tissue?”  It was said with kindness and concern, and there was no derision in the fact that I do, in fact, often cry when I read.

This is due in part to the books I choose.  When I taught younger students, I cried every time at Charlotte’s Web, and cried when Mudge gets lost in one of the Henry and Mudge books.  When I taught middle school, I cried at Ruby Holler when one of the main characters rocks a doll in a way she herself never was.  I cried last year when we read The Giver, and I cry every year when I read the end of Elsewhere.  I am caught up in these characters and can’t help but cry.  My students are often shocked at first (and then wonder aloud if I’ve read the book before this moment), but they are sympathetic and grow to understand that this is what happens when I read, even if I’ve read the book every year for many years.

And while I do not cry to make a point, I think it’s a useful thing for my students to witness.  For one thing, it reinforces the idea that it’s okay to cry — that even adults cry.  More importantly, perhaps, is that the power of words can move us to the point of tears.  Students are familiar with the concept of crying in a movie, but it’s relatively novel for them to see someone crying at a book.  I hope that it inspires them to read something that truly moves them, and that they will feel comfortable crying if that’s how they feel.

In the meantime, I am thankful of the tissues, the cup of water, and the understanding nods that my students provide when, once again, I’m crying as I read to them.

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First of all, I should say up front that I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and Derby Day is a big deal there.  The schools were closed today in preparation for it.  There’s a two-week festival preceding it.

That being said, I have never actually attended a Derby.  Actually, I’ve never actually attended any horse race.  Pretty philistine of me, I know, but then again, I can count on one hand the number of sporting events of any kind I’ve attended.  And I get a better view of the Derby on my television.  And watching from home, I can socialize until the moment the race starts, watch it, then get back to the party.  No crowds, no rain, no parking problems.

Although I have not always worn my Kentucky heritage with pride (and hey, George Clooney doesn’t either), I have enjoyed spreading Kentucky Derby fever among my friends.  I’ve lived far from Louisville for more of my life now than I lived there, and so most of the Derby parties I threw were for people who’d never even watched it on television.

Three years ago I began using a new math curriculum, and discovered that our final unit covered in the year, probability, starts just before the Kentucky Derby.  I decided this was a great real-life example of probability.

In order to teach it to students, I ended up learning a lot myself in preparation.  For instance, the starting odds are made by experts in the field, but on race day the odds are determined by the betting itself.  If everyone starts betting on a long shot, the odds change to reflect that it’s no longer a long shot.  That’s really interesting and also shows the lengths betting parlors will go to to ensure they get your money.

I’ve discovered it works best as a two-day lesson.  On the first day, I talk about the concept of odds and what that means for betting.  Then I provide students information about the horses and we talk through a few examples so they see what kinds of information people like to know beforehand — the owner, trainer, and jockey, the previous starts, the track conditions.  That’s day one.

Day two (which is the day before Derby day, and now we have post positions added to our data), and each student is given 25 hypothetical dollars to bet.  It’s a simple bet — just to win — but it does have to be the minimum $2.  I tell them there are lots of other ways to bet — win, place, or show, trifecta — but that for our purposes we’re going to stay simple.  On the notecards they hand in I need their bets and some reason why they bet the way they did.

The students left my class today buzzing about their choices and mulling over what their winnings might be.  Before we started, I had several students tell me they didn’t like the idea of betting or horse races, but everyone left today debating the merits of this or that horse.  (We also found out this morning that one of their favorites from the other day, Uncle Mo, was scratched this morning, and we talked about what that meant.  There was a side conversation about thoroughbreds;  one girl rides and wants a horse someday, but said thoroughbreds are inbred and weak.)

Each year I refine my way of doing this.  Each year I learn more about the race and the betting system, but I also learn more about my students and how they learn best.  I think so far, this year’s lessons have been the best of the three years.

And this year I am doing this carefully enough to collect (and then analyze) the results with the students.  Graphing is another skill they’re working on, and we can talk about how to show our class results.

I’m curious to see what happens tomorrow.  I had one student who bet the whole amount on the horse with the longest odds (50-1), because he said it would pay the best if he won.  I had a number of students who made $2 or $3 bets on a lot of horses, hedging their bets (as they say).  I told them (as verified by an article online) that the favorite rarely wins.  In the last 10 years, the favorite has won three times.  And yet most of the students made at least one bet on the favorite.

The student who put all his money on the horse with the longest odds got some flack from the other students for it, but my guess is that when we come back on Monday, watch the race online together, and calculate winnings and losses, most of my students will have lost all of their money, just as he did.  And if he wins, he’ll win more.  Of course, there are many theories about human decision-making (some of which are too recent for me to have read about in college, and some of which I read about in my college psych courses but have since forgotten because I graduated from college 20 years ago), but I’m interested to see it playing out in my own classroom.  The students will learn that gambling rarely pays (which we’ve already discussed in terms of the lottery or dice games).

So though I’m far from the land of my birth, I’m carrying on its traditions all these years later.  Have a mint julep, watch the race, and know that there’s a class of kids hanging on the results.

Parent Conferences

March 26, 2011

There have been many articles and books written about parent conferences.  Some are for parents, some are for teachers, but no matter the target audience, the message is clear:  Conferences are fraught with anxiety.  I’ve been on both sides of the conference table, and it’s fascinating to me how difficult they often are no matter what.

As a teacher, conferences are a time when I have 20 minutes (okay, mine usually last 30) to discuss with the parents everything about their child.  Sometimes we are problem-solving together, sometimes I’m passing along information, sometimes I’m quiet and just listening.  I am trying to do many things at the same time:  to let parents know how their child is doing academically, to indicate to the parents that I do know and understand some things about their child, to explain what it is that happens at school all day, every day.  Their child is spending a majority of his or her waking hours at school, and it’s a black box — the parents don’t know what happens at school, and this conference time twice a year is the most personal snapshot they get of their child’s life in my classroom.  One would think they’d want to hear it all.

As a parent, conferences are when I get to find out what happens during my child’s day.  Some children report every nuance of life at school (I was one of those children myself), but in my case my child’s reports are thin on details.  I get occasional anecdotes brought up in other conversations, never through direct questioning.  And if I show up at school myself, the dynamic of my child in his classroom changes, so that I’m not really seeing what my child is usually like at school.  So at my conferences, I could happily sit and listen to a string of anecdotes and evidence that all add up to my child’s experience of school.  But maybe I’m not a typical parent.  And I’m also sure that my being a teacher shapes how I am a parent in conferences.

Some parents want stories and evidence, a snapshot of school.  What a lot of parents want is to know that: 1) I know their child, and 2) I have a detailed plan for how best to teach their child.  Sometimes that’s easy.  Sometimes that’s incredibly hard.  There are children who are small mysteries, whose patterns of behavior and learning change rapidly.  We look for predictability and consistency to come up with a plan for how best to teach them;  some children are difficult cyphers.  Parents often know this about their own children, but they expect teachers to know more and to have answers.  It is deeply frustrating on both sides when we don’t.

Then there are the dynamics of classrooms.  No matter how well I might know one individual child, I have a classroom of individuals who react and respond to each other.  In a vacuum, I can address each child’s needs easily.  In a classroom, it’s much trickier.  What happens when one child’s difficulties affect others?  What happens when one child’s social insecurity butts up against another child’s desire to expand his or her social network?  I’m not meeting with all of these parents at the same time, and I can’t tell the parents of one child that another child is a problem for their child.  At those moments, I can listen and nod as parents describe interactions I know well, but I can’t tell those parents what conversations I have with the other child’s parents.

As a parent who has been in the teacher’s shoes, I do my best to let my child’s teacher know that I’m not seeking a clear solution to my child’s problems.  I know my child’s strengths and weaknesses;  we can talk together about how we might address them, but there’s no magic cure.  I don’t expect every teacher to like my child or to enjoy teaching him, but I do expect the teacher to be doing his or her best to teach him.  I expect from my child’s teachers what I expect of myself as a teacher.

Conferences are strangely intimate scenes.  Your child is the biggest delight and worry of your life.  You want his or her life to be a good one.  You want to spare him or her pain and suffering.  And the teacher is the person who spends more time every day with your child than you do.  There are expectations on both sides and a desire on both sides to do what’s best for the child.  And you sit across the table from each other and muddle through it.  There are no “perfect” parent conferences, but I learn a lot from most of them, whether I’m the parent or the teacher.  In this season of parent conferences, I hope we learn together and leave the conference feeling hopeful and heard.

I have a good memory.  I remember lots of things about being a child and a teenager and a young adult.  This sometimes comes in handy as a teacher and a mom, because I have a lot of empathy given that I remember similar feelings.  But one thing I tend to forget is what it feels like to be a student.

I have taken classes as an adult, of course.  Not only do I remember college and graduate school, but I’ve also taken classes along the way to support my teaching.  In general, I’m a good student.  I look at the work that has to get done, I pace myself, and I work hard  (without usually having to work really, really hard).  I like to do a good job and I like it when teachers are pleased with something I’ve done or said.  Really, I’m the same student I was as a child.

And so therefore it is sometimes frustrating to me when I see a student struggling, or a student who clearly doesn’t like school, or a student who doesn’t seem to be seeking my praise and delight.  These are foreign concepts to me.  Sure, I struggled in a few classes over the years, but I attributed that to a tricky subject matter or an unclear teacher, not to something about me.  Some students are ciphers in the way they feel about being a student.  It’s not a role they enjoy.

But I’m beginning to understand.  To support our study of ancient China this year, I signed up for a class for teachers at our art museum.  It’s on “Religious Arts in Southeast Asia.”  I’ve taken a few classes there before, and they’re always interesting.  There are four sessions, and I’ve now had three of them.

The schedule and format each session are the same.  We arrive at the media room for a two-hour lecture by a professor about a particular region.  We have an hour-long break for lunch, then meet quickly before heading up to the actual galleries for another two-hour lecture by that professor with actual objects.  We then meet again to summarize and talk about what we’d like to see more of as teachers.

The professors have been amazing.  They’re knowledgeable and engaging and interesting.  I take copious notes.  The galleries are full of things I knew nothing about, and now I know some things about their origin and meaning.  The other teachers are, for the most part, intelligent and thoughtful, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with them and eating lunch with them.

I have, however, discovered that my brain feels full before the day is over.  After about an hour in the galleries, I start to tune out.  I have trouble focusing on what the professor is saying, and my eyes roam the room.  My brain starts thinking about songs that have the word Buddha in them, or about Simpsons episodes on Zen Buddhism.  I take fewer notes and start doodling.  I am sure that there have been meaningful things said in the second hour of the gallery talks, but I don’t really remember them.  I look at my watch, I notice that my shoes are starting to hurt, I look out the window and wonder if it’s warmer or colder than forecasted.

Granted, it’s a more intense class experience than my students or I have been in.  Our classes at school are about an hour at most (appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders).  My college courses involved 70 minute lecture courses or labs that were a couple of hours, but generally not an entire day on one topic like this class.  Six hours of class with an hour break for lunch is, indeed, a very intense day, and we don’t expect our students to do anything like this.

Still, I know that what I’m feeling at hour three of “Buddhism in Korea” is what some of my students feel after 20 minutes of math class.  And I know that it’s a hard feeling to overcome.  Do I want to be more focused and attentive?  Yes.  Does that matter to my brain?  No.

One of the things I have tried, in an attempt to keep myself focused, is to ask more questions.  But I’ve also now had the experience twice in the last three sessions of asking what I think is a totally reasonable question about Buddhism (which, to be honest, I’m still just not really understanding as a system of beliefs), only to be responded to by the professor with some irritation, as if I’ve asked the stupidest question ever and clearly haven’t been listening.  This is also a new experience for me, and it makes me shut down.  If I’m going to be treated like that, why raise my hand at all?  I’ll just go back to doodling and wondering how much longer we’re going to be in this dark room of artifacts.

I find I have a new understanding of some of my students thanks to this class.  I know what it’s like to start to lose focus despite my best intentions.  I know what it’s like to ask what feels like a completely rational question, only to be met with frustration by a teacher who thinks it’s not a very good question.  I know what it feels like to know that I’m learning a lot, but to look forward to the end of the class.  Now I can use this experience to help me reach those who are struggling, which is perhaps a more important lesson to have learned than the many pages of notes I took on the rise of Buddhism.