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My blogging style

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

When I started this blog I was the only one reading it, so I wrote, essentially, for myself.  The first post is a good example of what my writing looks like when I write just for me – it’s rambling and it’s fine, but not special.  That’s not a great way to get or keep an audience.  So since I went public I’ve been playing around with styles and formats of my writing on this blog.  There is a limit, I think, to the number of entries anyone wants to read about my knitting.  The blogs that I most enjoy of others are the ones in which the writers are themselves, but not the mundane version – instead, they’re sharing the edges of themselves that make other people say “huh, she’s a little odd.”

For instance, there are many, many ways I could have written about my lesson planning process.  In this blog, I chose to emphasize my obsession and self-doubt, because those two pieces are there and they’re real.  If I were writing for a group of pre-service teachers, however, I would write about the steps in my planning process and the result of my planning choices on student achievement.  In doing so, I would shift the focus from the time and energy I spend on planning and instead focus on its rewards.  And this would also be real and true, but for the audience of this blog it might not be as interesting.

All of this is to say that when I’m writing this blog, I’m deliberately choosing issues I feel strongly about and focusing on the edges of my thoughts and personality as I write.  When I reread what I’ve written over the last few months I tend to think “yep, totally still agree with that,” and “people must think I’m crazy.”  Hopefully this approach of writing an extreme version of the truth will keep things interesting – for you and for me.

Categories: Choices Tags: , ,

Voice and movement coaches in lieu of behavior management courses

March 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The more I talk to teachers – new teachers, old teachers, student teachers – the more I hear that behavior management (aka the ability to get kids quiet and still long enough to teach them) is one of the greatest challenges in classrooms.  I hear that across school districts and populations – it’s not an urban problem or a suburban problem, a rich problem or a poor problem, as far as I can tell.  It seems that teachers everywhere have trouble getting their kids to listen.

In my own life, one of my friends is struggling with classroom management in his student teaching placement, trying to figure out how kids who are reasonably well-behaved with their regular teacher can be so hard to control when he has them on his own.  In pondering this problem with him I thought of two very different sources of inspiration: dog training and acting.

I think of dog training because, like Cesar of the Dog Whisperer, I believe that a significant amount of a dog’s response to us is based on the energy we project.  Our posture, voice, and attitude tell the dog either “I’m leading here.  You can trust me and should follow me,” or “I’m lost.  This is scary.  You’re on your own here.”  I believe the same thing happens in a classroom.  Children’s health and happiness often depends on their ability to read the emotions and attitudes of the adults around them, so they tend to get good at it.  When an adult’s posture or tone communicates “I have no idea what I’m doing here and I’m not sure if you should be listening to me,” students, like dogs, will take control, dominating the teacher.  Also like dogs, however, this isn’t really what they want.  It’s chaotic, unpredictable, and unbalanced.  Most students, certainly at the elementary school level, want to know that someone is in charge, has a plan, and will take care of them.

I think of acting classes because of Penelope Trunk’s post about taking an acting class to improve her leadership skills.  The premise of the class is that “acting and leading are both about establishing a relationship with an audience and making them believe in you.”  That applies just as well to teaching.  I believe that at heart, all great teachers are great performers.  They’re not all stand-up comedians, but they all know how to use their voice and body to get and keep the attention of a roomful of students.  It doesn’t matter how wonderful your lesson is – if you can’t get the kids’ attention they will never learn what you have to teach them.

Given how important our posture, voice, and energy are in controlling the attention in a classroom, perhaps it makes more sense for teachers to ditch the college courses on behavior management and instead work with vocal, acting, or movement coaches to tune the body’s vital tools.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Pondering public heartbreak

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I find breakups in the age of Facebook very strange.  Despite being on Facebook for years now, I’ve never actually dated anyone who was also on Facebook, so we haven’t had any awkward breakup unfriending issues.  And I usually keep my relationship status hidden, so there’s no major announcement on all of my friends’ feeds if things change.

But more than anything, I tend to be deeply private about heartbreak.  I can’t imagine posting a status update about the end of a relationship, and when I’m sad all I want to do is have private space for dealing with things – people calling or emailing to see how I am would be an intrusion, not a comfort.

So for me, building friendships in the world of extroverts requires some serious anthropological study.  For instance, one of my friends broke up with her long-time boyfriend this weekend – and said so online.  Throughout the day Saturday I saw supportive notes from other friends written on her wall, and thank you notes for being there for her written in return.  Seeing this, I realized that while my instinct was to give her privacy, this clearly isn’t in keeping with the social norms of the group, so I needed to consider my alternatives.  It appeared that other people called her to talk, but I ruled that out because I there are about 3 people in the world that I call just to chat.  Other people also seemed to go over to her house with food or just to be company, and that seemed like a nice idea, but what would I bring and how long are you supposed to stay?  It seemed pretty certain I’d make an awkward mess of it, especially since I’d keep thinking how much I’d want me to leave if I were her.  Still, I’m trying to make friends and I sensed that it would be a big step back in the friendship if I ignored this relationship news, so I finally settled on writing an email.  It was only two sentences offering company for a movie or drinks sometime this week, but it took me at least 10 minutes.  I’m pretty sure it’s not fully within the social norms of this group (it’s not terribly proactive), but it’s a big step closer than my initial reaction.

Categories: Relationships Tags:

Lesson planning choices

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We should start from this fact: I drive myself crazy when I’m creating lesson plans.

I do this because I see every lesson plan as a compilation of an almost infinite number of choices, all of which affect how well the lesson reaches its goal – and reaches each kid.  I will spend hours asking myself two questions, over and over: what’s the point of the lesson? and how can I best teach that?

Those may seem like simple questions, but when the state standard you’re trying to address is something like “students will establish central idea, unity, and tone in their writing,” figuring out the point of the lesson and how to teach it can be a challenge.  How does one teach an eleven-year-old to establish tone in his writing?  There’s no obvious answer, especially once you realize that you’re not teaching an eleven-year-old, you’re teaching 20 different eleven-year-olds, all with their own skills, strengths, and weaknesses.  So I sit and think about every one of my kids and what I know they can do and can’t do right now, then I sit and think about how I can teach to all of them in just 45 minutes, then I write a lesson plan I feel okay with.

Then, I wake up the morning I’m supposed to teach the lesson and realize that everything I planned is crap.  It will never work.  It was a stupid idea.  I got the point of the lesson wrong and my idea for teaching is terrible.  I need to change the entire thing around.

And so I worry and fret and make last minute changes.  And the lesson is fine.  And because the lesson is always fine, people around me tell me I need to lighten up – everything always works out, so stop getting so wound up about it.  Except I think the reason the lessons work out is because of all the thinking I put into it.  When I’ve thought about my students and the material, I can make changes as I teach the lesson, because I always know where I’m trying to go.  Without all that thought ahead of time, I just don’t see my lessons being as directed, as tailored, or as rich.  So I choose to drive myself crazy.

Watching the healthcare reform floor debate

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Here are some oft-repeated objections I truly don’t understand.  Some are because of a difference in the facts I’ve read and the opposition cites, but many of the issues are rooted in a very, very different way of looking at the world.  I typed up this list while watching the floor debate so that I stopped yelling at the TV and risking waking up my roommate.

Americans don’t want government telling them what to do with their healthcare…except perhaps the ones who don’t have any?

This bill doesn’t fix the system – it adds 32 million people to a broken system. To me, this seems like an argument arguing for a single-payer system, not a Republican argument against the reform.

This bill is an example of the Democrats march towards communism…and totalitarianism…and a socialist utopia. Who knew that the Democrats were all of these things?  Or that all of these types of government could coexist?

Americans don’t want federal subsidies of insurance plans that pay for abortions. That’s fine, but Americans already subsidize insurance plans that pay for abortions through the tax breaks for company plans.

Our job is to care for the interests of our children. The Republicans, I assume, are talking about financial interests (because they surely can’t be talking about health interests).  But even if they’re talking about financial interests, how do they see the status quo as protecting our financial interests when so many families go broke trying to pay for uncovered care?

The American people have spoken and they have said they want us to start over.  They want a bill that costs less and improves the care they receive. First, let me say that the American People, especially as viewed through polls alone, are often short-sighted.  They’re in favor of a lot of things – but usually just the easy things.  They want lower taxes and more services.  More protections, but less government intrusion.  I am, in the end, deeply suspicious of direct democracy and governing solely by the will of the people.  Sometimes in a representative democracy the highest responsibility of a leader is to vote for the common good rather than being informed only by the opinions of The People.

We can’t afford to be passing this healthcare bill when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and haven’t been able to find new ones. A fair point, except those same Americans are most likely without healthcare coverage right now.

This debate is about who will control our healthcare decisions.  We will wake up to find that our loved ones will wait months to see a mediocre doctor, only to be told that he cannot treat them because his treatments must conform to government mandates. It’s quite a picture, but I feel pretty confident that it’s a delusional one.  This bill does not make government the provider of healthcare for most Americans (that was deemed far too liberal/socialist), nor does it do anything that should drive down the quality of doctor preparation in America.  And it’s interesting that the Republicans’ typical family always has insurance, and a doctor relationship, that is under threat.  What about the families who have neither?  What about the families who already wake up without access to doctors or without access to procedures, because they have neither money nor insurance?  And what about constituents who currently have healthcare, but are in HMOs in which their choice of doctors is limited, their access to specialists is limited, and each procedure must be approved by the insurance company?  How is that status quo more in favor of freedom than the current reform?

In fact, when it comes down to it the biggest difference between the Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats see the uninsured and underinsured as the norm and the Republicans see the comfortably insured as the norm.  They can’t really argue effectively with one another when they come from these different norms because the needs, fears, and desires of these groups are so different.  Rep. Paul Ryan calls the bill paternalistic and condescending, the Democrats call it protecting Americans from the abuse of large corporations.  Those are drastically different world views, assuming drastically different possibilities for individuals to change their lives on their own.  In thinking about it, I believe this cuts to the heart of why I am a Democrat.

We’re breaking with the tradition of personal responsibility in this bill. How exactly can someone who is denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition be expected to exercise their personal responsibility in this situation?

The American people want to face our challenges with healthcare with more freedom, not more government control. Freedom to…die?  To go into bankruptcy?  I’m not sure how freedom is going to solve the issues with healthcare.

Stand for freedom and the American people will stand with you. Except the ones who are sick and can’t afford treatment.

Categories: Choices

Life as a series of choices

March 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I think on the most powerful things you can do to be happy is to see your life as a series of choices rather than the result of external, unchangeable forces.  I remember watching as one of the families I worked with in the childcare center came close to falling apart.  The mom hated her job, missed being with her son, was pregnant with her second child, and had been told by her husband that she had to keep working after the baby was born because they couldn’t afford for her to stay home.  The thing is, they really couldn’t afford for her to keep working, either.  Their son was at risk of being thrown out of the childcare center because he was biting 2-3 children a day and the mom was constantly on the brink of tears.  But they owned a McMansion and drove two brand new SUVs, so they needed the two incomes, no matter what the emotional cost to the family.

I understand how people can feel trapped in that situation – they see the monthly bills and think “I can’t afford to quit.”  So few people see the monthly bills as choices that they have control over.  You can choose to live somewhere smaller and less expensive, choose to trade in the expensive SUVs for cheaper models, choose to cancel cable, change the phone plan, use less gas by cutting down on driving, eat out less often – the list of possibilities is long.  But when people don’t see their lives for all of the small choices that create them, they feel powerless to change – stuck in a job or situation they hate because they can’t envision an alternative.

Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed or powerless I work hard to identify my choices.  Low bank balance?  I think about what spending I can cut this week and whether there are recurring costs I can reduce or eliminate.  I also think about what work I’ve done recently – have I been spending more time with friends or watching TV than I have on billable work?  If so, I can start fixing my cash flow by choosing work over play until things are in balance.  Want to move to Austin but feel trapped by the amount of stuff I have?  I start thinking hard about what I can donate or lend so that I’m more mobile and flexible.

And when I found myself in a job that was abusive and demoralizing, I made a lot of choices: to take control of my daily work, to prepare my office for a transition, and to leave as soon as possible.  Having a clear long-term goal and focused short-term tasks helped me insulate myself from the worst of the work environment and regain control of my life.  Without a sense of agency, a sense that I could make different choices, I would have sunk.  Instead, I found my way out, stronger, I hope, for the experience.

Categories: Career, Choices Tags: ,

Columbine coverage and the demonization of the outcast

March 18, 2010 4 comments

I went to five events today as part of the ongoing Virginia Festival of the Book.  Two were pretty boring, but the other three were lively, interesting discussions of important issues.  And in one, I actually asked a question (I never ask questions during Q&A sessions).

The question I asked came at the end of a panel on mass shootings through the prism of the press.  The first author had written about the press coverage of Columbine while the second wrote about the coverage of the DC snipers.  The main point that the author writing about Columbine tried to convey is that everything we “know” about Columbine and why it happened is false – it was speculation in the immediate hours and days after the event that had no basis in fact.  The shootings were not, in fact, a result of two bullied or isolated boys seeking their revenge on the jocks.  Nor are most school shootings.  Exhaustive studies of school shooters by the FBI, Secret Service, and Department of Education concluded that there is no typical shooter.  And yet I think our culture still carries around a suspicion of the high school loner or misfit.  The Columbine press angle of “shooter as outcast” added a sense of legitimacy to people’s existing fears of those who are different.  A discomfort with a kid wearing a trench coat became sensible rather than judgmental.  Maybe other schools reacted differently, but my memories of high school – and college – are of jokes about the kids who dressed differently, the kids on the margins, maybe “pulling another Columbine.”  It wasn’t all that funny.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a high school though – maybe things have changed.  I’d like to hope they would, but until more people understand the wild untruths underlying the initial coverage of Columbine, I worry that we’ll continuing adding unfair suspicion to the already heavy burden carried by misfit kids who are just trying to make it through high school.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
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