the least that I can do

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We are now heading into Day 6 of the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, and I am tired.

Being on strike has been exhausting on just about every level. It’s physically exhausting to be on the picket line from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, then go to a rally/march in the afternoon. It’s mentally exhausting to not know when we’ll be back in school and if/when we’ll make up the lost days, and to think through all the contingency plans for where to start once we get back into the classroom (and into email and Google Drive, where my teaching life lives). And it’s emotionally exhausting to see the city’s responses to the union’s bargaining team, to hear all of the excuses, and especially to read the letter that the mayor sent to the union on Monday.

And yet, to be on strike is in one sense the least that I can do as an educator for the students of Chicago. The strike makes all of us take a stand on the issues that are being raised, and I stand with the CTU. The union is fighting for the common good. We are asking for a nurse in every school. A librarian in every school. Staffing at clinician-to-student ratios as recommended by the appropriate national organizations. A student-to-counselor ratio and limiting ‘non-counseling duties’ so that the counselors can actually do their jobs. More teacher-directed prep time so that we can actually do our jobs. And the bargaining team is making progress on these issues. It just took a teachers’ strike for the city to move.

I’ll be honest, my school has been doing just fine. I’ve spent all 7 years of my teaching career at a selective enrollment high school in Chicago, which in many ways puts me in a bubble and makes it easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the city. At our school’s Back-to-School night in September, a parent asked if our teachers would also be on strike if the union went on strike (also a sign of how confusing the high school system is in Chicago). Earlier in October, our CTU staff had a joint “walk in” with the SEIU workers at our school, and one of the students on the school newspaper stopped me to ask how the contract negotiations, the (at the time, potential) strike would affect our teachers and our students. The Wednesday before the strike, during the last period of the day, one of my students commented “yeah, but this strike won’t affect us that much”. And this confusion about how the contract negotiations would affect our school is understandable- we often don’t feel the effects of district-wide issues in the same ways that other schools do. When the CPS budget crisis happened a few years ago, our parent group was able to fundraise $250,000+ to cover the shortfall. Our science department budget has always been able to cover the supplies I need for labs, and I have never had to put together a Donors Choose project to fund the activities I want to do in the classroom.  We already have a full time librarian, a nurse in the school every day, 6 counselors for our approximately 2000 students (note: still a higher student-to-counselor ratio than what’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association). 

I have to remember that all of this makes us the lucky ones. And it’s absurd when I think about how this makes our school lucky, because these are things that students in other school districts take for granted. 

There are clear systemic issues affecting the youth in our city. Even in our privileged school, we have students dealing with homelessness and trauma, we see the effects of systemic racism and injustice. I have conflicting feelings about the very existence of selective enrollment high schools – I love where I work, but I also want all students in the city to have well-resourced educational experiences that doesn’t depend on how well they do on high-stakes standardized tests. But, as one of my colleagues said to our staff yesterday morning on the picket line, systemic problems require systemic solutions, and our teachers’ contract is one place to start.

I believe that education is a right, not just for the privileged. I still have individual work to do – I could have done a better job of talking about the strike with my students before it happened, I could do a better job of finding places within the science curriculum where we can discuss issues of injustice and inequity. I am tired, as are many of my colleagues. Being on strike takes “teacher tired” to a whole new level. I would rather be back in my classroom, thinking about electron configuration and periodic trends. But this strike is a time for me to literally put my money where my mouth is. So as long as it takes to get the wins our students and communities need, I will be out on the picket line. It is, after all, the least that I can do.

tired

“There’s no tired like teacher tired.”

That statement is generally accepted as true, and there are a whole slew of memes to go along with it. But as I’m winding down on winter break and finding myself a little mentally exhausted at the thought of going back to school, I have to wonder why.

What do we expect from our teachers? A few years ago, I explored the idea of what is “good teaching” and what makes a “good teacher”. Some of the points that came out of my personal investigation into good teaching indicated that good teachers have all of the following:

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About a year later, I talked about “good teaching” on a podcast with some other teacher writers and we agreed that good teaching isn’t sustainable in isolation, and it is something that can/should be developed, rather than being an innate quality of a teacher. We shouldn’t expect to be excellent at teaching every day, from Day 1.

Yet right now, in the middle of my 6th year teaching, I find myself wondering if we still expect too much from our teachers, if we as teachers expect too much from ourselves.

In this 6th year of teaching, I still find myself working crazy hours. My timecard from before winter break showed too many 12 hour days. (And yes, I have a timecard because although I don’t get paid overtime, my school district requires us to clock in and out.) I sometimes think that I’m doing myself a favor by staying late and grading, but there is always more to do. And I feel like I already work at 100% efficiency, but I still need more hours in the day. It’s hard to get away from the mentality that I should return assessments to students ASAP (particularly mid-unit assessments) so that they have the feedback, that work done for a team should take priority over work done just for myself (I teach on two different subject teams), that I should be available for students outside of school hours, that I should contribute to my school community by sponsoring clubs and joining committees. All of these these “shoulds”, plus the work of, y’know, teaching and the other aspects of my life.

And I so wonder – what is the value of my time as a teacher? Is the value of that time different than the value of my time not spent teaching? There was an interesting article about a similar problem in higher education, where PhD’s find themselves in low-paying adjunct faculty positions. Elizabeth Segran argues that PhD’s are choosing to stay in an unfavorable labor market.

No one but Ph.D.’s themselves expect Ph.D.’s to live without the dignity of a living wage or to work for academic institutions that do not respect them. Indeed, when adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them. The laws of supply and demand dictate the academic labor market as they do every other labor market, and universities have no incentive to change their labor practices when adjuncts willingly work for so little.

I see her argument, and I see similarities in the K-12 teaching profession, where teachers are continuously expected to do more with less. But I don’t know how to shift the market to incentivize higher value for our time, or if that’s even a good way of thinking about the problem. (I have issues with applying a market mentality to education, and this Washington Post article articulates better “Why schools aren’t businesses”). I know I contribute to the problem when I stay for 12 hr days, when I sponsor the Scholastic Bowl team (which does Saturday tournaments that go all day several times a year) for no additional compensation, when I take care of work that may or may not be explicitly within my job description (I honestly don’t know what is explicitly in my job description). I also struggle to be okay with doing less on a personal and moral level – in order to teach at the standard that I hold myself to, I need to do all those “shoulds”.

Jose Vilson, a teacher and a writer whom I respect enormously, wrote about the value of a teacher’s time recently. He argued that we should be given less classes, less students:

However, in countries that have done away with those arguments*, they’ve learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they’re obligated to grade.

* “Those arguments” being that students need more time with teachers/teachers don’t spend enough time with students

Don’t get the wrong message – I love working with students. When my non-teacher friends ask me what’s the hardest part about teaching, it’s never the students. Yes, there are challenging students to work with, and yes, if you catch me in a certain frame of mind I will vent about said students. But honestly, if I had fewer students, fewer classes, I could give those students and those classes more of my attention. I feel guilty because I don’t know all my students, but I have 150 of them and that makes it hard. When I hear that a student of mine is through something in their life that I had no idea about, I wish I had the time to cultivate more and deeper relationships with my students. And if all of the teachers at our school had this time, what would be the impact on our students? Would there still be as many students who are struggling, academically or personally? Would we finally be able to close the “opportunity gap”? And would we as teachers feel less tired, less burned out or demoralized, by the work that we face every day?

There are a lot of narratives about teaching out there. Becky Van Tassel, another teacher writer whom I admire enormously, wrote recently about how the perception of what is “normal” can shift our behavior. But what is “normal” for teachers? Is “teacher tired” just normal, and I (still) need to figure out how to just deal with it? Is the lone “superhero teacher” who bucks the system and rises above (and pulls their students up with them) normal, and what I should be aspiring to? Or is the disempowered, burned out, demoralized teacher the normal, and I need to find my own personal coping mechanisms? I don’t want any of these things to be normal for teachers, or for myself.

I go back to school on Monday, and although I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, I’m taking the time to take stock of where I’m at. I’m still tired, and I don’t want to continue this way. There are things I can tweak to take better care of myself personally and professionally, which I will probably try. But I’m still wondering how we can shift the narrative, shift the perception of what is “normal” for teachers, and how we can make school a better place for all who pass through, both students and teachers.

 

the emotional weight of teaching

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It’s not quite over yet. The last day for students for us isn’t until Tuesday- but it’s finally the end of the school year. This was Year 5 for me, and I feel… tired. Drained, even. It’s not unusual to be exhausted and counting down the hours until summer break. But this year felt more emotionally heavy than previous years.

I know other teachers in other schools deal with a lot more emotional trauma than I’ve come across these past five years. I work in a school where it seems like everything is fine and great, and it always seems like most of our students have (relatively) stable home lives. I spent my first four years teaching focusing on the teaching – the lesson plans, the curriculum, the classroom structures. And sometimes, when you’re focus on those things, it’s easy to ignore things that may be happening underneath the surface. But this year, maybe because I’ve had to spend less time and energy on the day-to-day of teaching, I’ve been more aware of and more worn out by the things that may have just slipped under my radar before.

My colleague and friend started a student-teacher mentor program, where at-risk students in our school were paired with a one-on-one teacher mentor. Partly because of this program, partly because mental health just came more on my radar this year, I’ve become more aware of the issues that some of our students face, and more than once I found myself on the verge of tears as I’ve found out more about what my students are going through. I attended a Mental Health First Aid course this spring, which was super useful (and I would definitely recommend it to any teacher or anyone who works with youth), but also emotionally exhausting to think about all of the students who may need help and may not be getting it right now, for a variety of reasons.

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m having regular interactions with upperclass students. I had a junior homeroom this year and we implemented a more advisory-type thing in our school with social/emotional check-ins on early release Fridays, roughly 2x’s/month, so I had more regular interactions with students who are clearly stressed about their grades, test scores, and futures. How do I help students manage this stress, and also help them get some perspective that their high school grades are not the arbiter of their success as adults? How do I do this in a way that is helpful and authentic, and not patronizing or dismissive of their very real feelings in this moment?

There was also the never-ending news cycle of Something Terrible happening in the world. It seemed like every day, there was something new and (from my perspective, somewhat horrifying) happening and it was both hard to keep track of and hard to avoid. In particular, some of the stories that have come to light with the #MeToo movement hit really close to home in the school setting, and that’s been hard and uncomfortable.

And then, school shootings were both in your face and under the radar this year. My sister semi-joked after the Parkland, FL shooting that she was considering getting her young kids bullet proof backpacks and then suggested that actually, I might need it more. When the Santa Fe, TX shooting happened last month (only last month!), one of my students commented “10 people died and no one is talking about it.” There was a shooting at a middle school in Indiana, just a few days after the Santa Fe shooting, which hits close to home on a number of levels. A teacher tackled the shooter, and I’ve had conversations with my colleagues – would you or wouldn’t you step in front of a shooter to save your students? What kind of world do we live in that teachers even have to think about this? I used to think lockdown drills were just something you do, but this year, the possibility of a school shooting made our most recent lock down drill emotionally difficult for me as I found myself running through scenarios – what would we do if there was actually an active shooter in the school?

I can’t tell if there was actually more going on this school year than normal, or if it’s been about the same level of emotional turmoil and I was just more aware of it this year. I can see why teachers quit, particularly in the schools where students are dealing with much more overt social/emotional/mental health needs. Sometimes, the emotional weight of teaching feels like it’s too much, and we all (teachers and students alike) need a break.

And yet, I am hopeful for the next school year, despite the exhaustion of this one. In some ways, there’s not a lot I can do about the Terrible Things that are happening in the world at large or about the risk of school shootings. But I am hopeful that I can find ways to better address my students’ social/emotional/mental health needs. That I can better acknowledge them as people and all of the stuff they are going through (even if it’s “just” the “normal” experience of being a teenager, which can feel traumatic all on its own). And I am hopeful that the conversations that we’re having- at my school, with friends and family, in the world at large – will make us more thoughtful, reflective, and lead us towards positive change. Let us do the small things with great love.

We can do no great things — only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa

what’s in a title?

Teacher. Leader. Writer.

I’ve been referred to as all of these things, yet only the first one feels comfortable. And I’ve been probing myself – why? Where is the discomfort coming from? And what are the implications of that discomfort?

I’m comfortable with the title of “Teacher” because if anyone asks what I do, I tell them I teach. And in a very real way, teaching is a part of who I am. Teaching is what I do daily. Teaching is always on in the back of my brain, even during “breaks” – I’m not sure that it ever truly turns off, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, to be honest. Also: it’s on my paystub: “Job Title: Regular Teacher”. So I have no problem with being referred to as a teacher.

“Leader”, though – that’s a loaded word. I don’t have any formal leadership roles. What does it mean to be a “teacher-leader”? Does “teacher-leader” mean that I’m involved in official initiatives, or presenting at conferences, or influencing educational policy in some way?

Becky Van Tassell, another Knowles Senior Fellow, probed her own ideas about teacher leadership in “Leadership as a Stance: Leading from Inside the Classroom”, and summarized it this way:

Teacher leadership has been defined differently in the literature, but many researchers agree that teacher leaders are distinguished from other teachers because they influence teaching and learning within and beyond their own classrooms (Wenner & Campbell, 2016).

So then, by this definition – Do I influence teaching and learning beyond my own classroom? Probably- I work on two different course teams (physics and chemistry), and I contribute ideas and strategies to both. Do I consider myself a leader because I do those things? Not really, because I also gain a lot from those collaborations (namely, the ideas and strategies of my colleagues). And honestly, the work I do with my colleagues just feels like a part of my job, so I shy away from using the term “leader” to describe myself or the work that I do.

And then there’s “Writer”. It’s strange, because I’ve written plenty as a teacher, but I’ve never considered myself a Writer-with-a-capital-W.  Does having my own teacher blog count as being a “real” writer? Do I avoid referring to myself as a writer because it’s just something I do on the side, for myself? This space has been mostly so that I can process the things on my mind, and there’s not really another, broader, goal for my writing. Am I a writer just because I write? (To me, taking on the title of Writer just because I write feels disingenuous to those who make their livelihood writing; as someone who loves reading, I would like to acknowledge and honor the work that goes into writing for a living.)

I’m left wondering – even in adulthood, how am I developing my identity? My identity as a teacher comes from a very clear job title – someone else decided that I would be acceptable as a teacher and gave me this job. No one has given me a formal title as leader or writer. So am I only allowing others to assign my identity, rather than developing it for myself?

Identity is a complex thing, and our identities influence how we teach, how we interact with our students, how we interact with our colleagues. And their identities influence how they interact with us. (I loved this blog post by Michelle Cheyne about how she came to realize how important teacher and student identity is in the classroom, and how we often don’t know all the facets of another’s identity.) So how does my reluctance to take on the identities of leader or writer impact how I interact with others? Am I neglecting to acknowledge the ways that I am contributing to my school, and perhaps the conversation about education at large? Is there a value in acknowledging those contributions? What does the discomfort that I feel when others classify me as leader or writer actually mean? And how do I acknowledge (or fail to acknowledge) the contributions of others who may also not have a formal title to go with the work that they do?

Maybe the title Teacher feels most comfortable because that is what overshadows all of the other work. If I lead, it’s so that I can be better at teaching, so I can make things better for my students. If I write, it’s also so I can be better at teaching, by processing my thoughts in this medium I can also make things better for my students. But I’m trying to be a better teacher, and that process seems to involve picking up some new facets to my own identity, and going through this discomfort. After all,

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

— Abraham Maslow

 

group-worthiness

It’s (the end of) winter break, and I find myself feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my teaching this year. There’s nothing major, just- particularly in my chemistry classes- things aren’t quite right. Mostly, I’ve noticed issues with student participation that make me feel disgruntled- and make me feel like I’m not doing enough to promote equity and collaboration in my classroom. I could (and have) come up with all kinds of excuses- my chem classes are 1st period and 7th period; 1st period, they aren’t quite awake yet so they don’t always talk to each other. 7th period is so close to the end of the day that they’re either super distracted or just want to get the work done. But I still feel like I could and should be doing something more to facilitate student collaboration.

How do you help students see the value in working together? In mulling this over this recently, I think part of the problem is I haven’t been giving students enough conversation-worthy or group-worthy tasks in my chem classes. If a student can mostly complete a POGIL-style activity on their own, why wouldn’t they? It’s faster and easier. And if a group is at completely different points in the POGIL, should I not answer student A’s question about #10 while student B is still working on #7?

I struggle with inquiry in teaching chemistry more than I do in teaching physics. I’m pretty sure I’ve said it before, but it often feels like my chemistry curriculum map is a mile wide and an inch deep. My students have complained about frequent quizzing. On principal I actually agree with frequent quizzes (frequent quizzes are shown to improve student learning), but I understand the frustration on constantly being quizzed on new material. And then, with the sheer amount of content that I’m supposed to cover in the school year, it’s difficult to come up with inquiry-based activities that aren’t just a variation on a POGIL. Don’t get me wrong, I love POGILs and I think they’re way better than lecturing at my students. But recently, I’ve been wondering if I’m relying too much on these paper-based activities instead of changing things up. And are these POGIL-style activities actually giving students a reason to talk to each other?

The answer, at least right now, seems to be no. And I think there were some subtle changes I made this year that actually negatively impacted some of the group dynamics in my classroom. I stepped away from introducing group roles at the start of the year, because I’ve always dropped them by the end of the year (or more realistically, by the end of the first quarter). But now I wonder if having those artificial-feeling roles was a good way to train students to work together more, even if they only lasted a few weeks at the start of the year. (I also struggled with finding authentic roles where each student actually had a specific role to contribute to the group. So maybe I need to look into this more/again.) I also think I’ve let issues of status slide this year, so right now my high status students take over in a group while the lower status student(s) sit back, if they work together at all. How can I be more conscious about developing status of my students? I’ve been less conscientious about this, and I’m seeing the effects in the classroom.

And then there’s grouping. How do I group students to best facilitate their interactions? One of my classes this year is full of students who are already friends (about 1/2 the class, actually), and if I sit them with some students not in their friend group, I often end up with two mini-groups at one table. Where do I find the time to have students reflect on the effect of such interactions on their peers and even on their own learning? (Side note: I need to collate and organize the peer feedback that students have been submitting for the past semester.)

I’ve had this blog post by Ben Orlin in the back of my mind for a few weeks: The three barriers to deep thinking in schools. Do my assessments actually assess students on deep thinking, or just rote memorization? I feel like in chemistry, it’s particularly easy to fall into rote memorization, especially in a first year course. I would like students to think more deeply, and I love the questions that they can come up with in class. But sometimes (often) we have to move on. And I struggle with this on a pedagogical level as well as on a personal, I love chemistry and want them to understand how awesome it is level.

It’s basically the end of winter break; classes start again on Monday. A part of me feels like I should have taken more time to reflect on these issues, worked more on revamping the upcoming content so that I have more group-worthy and conversation-worthy pieces in my chem classes. I really want to incorporate goal-less problems in my physics classes (and it seems quite doable for both me and my students), and I would love to figure out a way to do this in chem as well. I want to revamp the escape room I tried last year for a semester final review. I want to incorporate some of the ideas I gleaned from reading “How We Learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens” by Benedict Carey. I want to better challenge my higher level students, and foster a deeper understanding of content in all of my students. There are so many goals, and so little time.

However, my friend and cohort member Alex Steinkamp wrote a piece for the most recent issue of Kaleidoscope, the journal published by the Knowles Teacher Initiative. His piece on Self-Talk and Sustainability is a good reminder that “I must give myself the grace to value the subtle work that I do towards the goals that underpin my work. This is not meant to be a call to complacency. Rather, this is meant to be a reminder that our real moral imperative is that we sustain our practice. Even when we fail to reach our targets, the value we add is from trying.” So, right now, I’m trying and I’m trying to see the value in trying. I’m taking the space to reflect, and hoping that in the next few weeks I can make some adjustments, no matter how small, to promote collaboration, to make the tasks I give my students more group-worthy or at least conversation-worthy. And I’m not going to beat myself up for taking more time during winter break than I have in the past to mentally and physically recharge. So hopefully, at the end of second semester, I won’t be feeling quite so disgruntled.

The risk in reflection

Reflecting can be risky.

I’m on Day 2 of a Critical Friends Group coaches training (sponsored by the Knowles Teaching Initiative, formerly KSTF, with a trainer from the National School Reform Faculty. I’ll be here for three more days and I’ve already had plenty of think about. (What’s a Critical Friends Group? NSRF has an answer to that.)

Day 1 we did an activity around quotes, and this was the one that I picked:

I like this quote because it captures how growth is not easy. There’s plenty of talk in education about teaching students to struggle and teaching them to embrace mistakes as growth opportunities, but mistakes are risky to make. Particularly if they are made publicly. But a part of making mistakes and struggle worthwhile to the learning process is examining them and reflecting on them, and I’m realizing that this reflection piece can feel just as (or perhaps more) risky than just making the mistake itself. How many times have I made a mistake or had a difficult experience and just wanted to get past it, rather than thinking through what happened in that scenario and how I can learn from it?

Today, we read an excerpt from Margaret Wheatley’s book “Turning to One Another” that spoke about the willingness to be disturbed in conversations that we have with one another. There were many parts of this piece that resonated with me, but for right now, a quote:

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new.

Although the whole excerpt is about how we should be willing to really listen to someone else’s view and let that disturb us so that we can think well together, I also think that the willingness to be disturbed is essential when we reflect on mistakes and difficult experiences. We need to be willing to be disturbed in our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves. And that’s risky. Because what if I reflect on a difficult experience and find that there are so many places in which I can grow? What if I reflect on that difficult experience and find that it makes me question my beliefs and assumptions about who I am? Am I willing to risk having my very identity disturbed?

In teaching, everything is personal. Being a teacher is a core part of my identity; in particular, believing that I’m a reasonably good teacher is a core part of my identity. Reflecting on experiences that could expose this belief as untrue (or at least, not as true as I thought it was) is risky. But if I don’t reflect on my difficult experiences teaching, how will I grow as a teacher? I have many thoughts about the importance of reflection, and I want to promote more reflection in my students, so I need to be willing to take the risk in reflecting on my practice and be willing to face whatever disruptions to my beliefs and assumptions that might come out of that. I need to be willing to dive into the confusion that accompanies having my beliefs and assumptions disrupted, so that I can continue to grow and change.

I don’t think that, as a society, we’re good at acknowledging the importance of mistakes in the growth process or rewarding mistakes. I don’t think that we’re good at recognizing the importance of reflecting on our experiences and really learning from them, growing from them. Rather, we tend to highlight the successes and gloss over the reality that those successes required us to get through many, many difficult situations. But I want to be more willing to acknowledge my mistakes, acknowledge my difficult experiences, and use those to grow. I want to encourage my students to have this attitude, and I want to encourage my colleagues to have this attitude. I’m still not completely sure how to do this (and I’m hoping that the rest of this workshop will help me clarify some next steps for next year), but I’m just trying to remind myself of the importance of this kind of work. Even when it’s hard, messy, and uncomfortable.

ignorance and failure

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Right Question Institute’s Midwest Conference as a guest, and I was able to bring a colleague from work with me. This was the first out-of-district PD that I’ve attended with a colleague, and it was really nice to have someone along with me to talk about how we might incorporate the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) more into our classrooms.

Since yesterday, I’ve been musing over some ideas/quotes about questioning, ignorance, failure, class culture, and mindset (of the teacher and the student).

One is this idea that I tweeted out yesterday:

Another idea my colleague and I discussed is the possibility of using QFT to get students asking questions and thinking about classroom norms at the beginning of the year, and I’m considering this quote from author Jasper Fforde as a QFocus:

Failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

– Jasper Fforde, “The Well of Lost Plots”

(Side note: if you like British literature and fantasy, Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series is highly recommended. You’ll see another side of Miss Havisham, among others.)

I think these two things – allowing room for ignorance and failure in the classroom – are intertwined. QFT and student questions can honor these two things as part of the learning process (but are by no means the only way of honoring these pieces of learning). Several speakers mentioned that QFT allows for a safe space for students to ask questions and become more comfortable/confident in their ability to not only ask the questions but find the answers. And I think this is an essential part of my classroom that I try to cultivate, but I wonder how easily this kind of thing could be undermined by subtle things we do as teachers. If I want a question-asking, try-fail-try-again mentality to be the basis of my classroom, how do I promote such a culture? How do I inadvertently undermine it? How do I model failure for my students?

I’ve tried QFT a few times in my classroom, and it went ok, but I need to do more thinking about what the goal of those questions are and how to use them in an authentic way. Because otherwise, it becomes just another hoop for students to jump through, just another part of the game of school that they play. I want to use QFT more, and I want to take more advantage of the student reflection, the metacognitive thinking, that it has the potential to promote, but I want to do this intentionally.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a class on online tools and collaboration in education and talk about the tech tools that I’ve used in my classroom. I use Google Classroom and Google Docs all over the place in my classes, and one of the participants asked if I’ve gone completely paperless. The short answer is no, the longer answer is no, because the online/computer-based tools don’t lend themselves well to everything I want to do in my classroom (also, we’re not 1:1 and not all of my students have reliable access to devices and/or internet from outside of school). One of the skills that I’m trying to develop as a teacher is the ability to evaluate different tools and see when they’re most appropriate for what I’m trying to do in the classroom.

So right now, I see QFT as another tool to promote student thinking, student agency, student reasoning. It is one tool of many that I try to implement in my curriculum, which is evolving and dynamic and I hope that it stays that way. But it’s hard, sometimes, to implement a new technique or a new tool in the classroom. It’s hard even to implement a tool I’ve tried before in a different way than I used it last time. I’m finding this to be true even after only 4 years in the classroom. There’s a risk involved – what if it flops? And when I work on course teams and share this tool/resource with my colleagues, there’s a bigger risk – what if it flops for everyone? Then they won’t want to use this thing (that I think is actually a pretty cool tool) again!

But teaching is a process, just as learning is a process. If I believe that failure and mistakes are ways that my students will learn, I need to accept that these things will also help me learn how to teach, how to be better. Kelly O’Shea has a Samuel Beckett quote as her blog’s tagline:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–  Samuel Beckett

Next year, I want to be better about fostering an environment where mistakes are expected and valued, where student questions are valued by everyone. In aiming for this, I also want ignorance and failure to have space in my teaching practice too – acknowledging what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I tried and will need to try again differently.

mindset, smarts, and strengths

I’m finally getting around to reading “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, a book I’m reading with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellows for our summer meeting, and it’s prompting a lot of reflection on how I have or haven’t fostered a growth mindset about science with my students this year. I’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and over the years, I’ve tried different things to more consciously foster a growth mindset in my students but I’ll be honest- I don’t think I do a good job of this and I don’t think I spend the time addressing it (explicitly or implicitly) that is really needed in the classroom. But I’m trying.

At the start of the spring semester, inspired by Kelly O’Shea and a conversation about being “smart” in science class, I switched up the way I do peer feedback and asked students to comment on their groupmates’ strengths in science class. At the end of each unit, I asked students to pick a science skill that they saw as a strength for each of their groupmates and explain why they chose that skill or when they saw that skill. I pulled the list of skills from a blog post by Ilana Horn on auditing your classroom for competencies and status. Here’s the list that students could pick from:

  • Extending on the ideas of others
  • Representing ideas clearly
  • Making connections between ideas
  • Asking interesting questions
  • Asking questions to clarify misunderstandings
  • Coming up with logical explanations
  • Working systematically
  • Working without giving up

It’s been a busy year and I didn’t revisit this mid-semester, but I compiled all of the peer feedback (which was collected via Google Forms) and printed a sheet for each student with their unique anonymous feedback. (I would love an easier way to do this and may need to do a mail merge type thing next year, but that’s another story.) I then had the students go through a series of reflection questions. As we were doing this in class, one student remarked that it felt like the end of summer camp, where you read all the nice things that other people say about you. Another student asked where the feedback about his weaknesses was, and I told him that I had only asked students to give feedback on strengths.

I thought about asking students to give feedback to each other on areas of improvement, but I’ve found that students can be almost too brutally honest with one another and I wonder if it’s helpful. Cacia Steensen, another KSTF fellow, wrote about her experiences looking for strengths in her colleagues and how it improved teacher morale in her department. I wonder what the effect of asking students to focus on strengths in science class has on their morale, particularly for students who don’t necessarily see themselves as smart in science. I hope that it improves their morale and helps them see that they are contributing to the classroom and their learning, although I think I need to do a better job of communicating and reinforcing this message throughout the school year. I also hope that it helps the students who do see themselves as competent and smart in science also see the value in their peers and how that helps their learning. A goal for next year is to revisit the idea of skills and strengths multiple times in the school year, although it can be hard because this seems to fall into the “important but not urgent” category of things.

I didn’t go through all of my student responses as in-depth as I could have, but I noticed that while most students weren’t surprised to see that their classmates thought they asked good questions (either interesting questions or questions to clarify understanding), some of them were surprised that their classmates thought they had skills related to explanations – coming up with logical explanations, extending on the ideas of others, representing ideas clearly, making connections between ideas. Some of them also thought they asked too many questions and slowed down their classmates too much. I think next year, I’d like to spend more time talking about what these skills actually look like and how they can be helpful to learning. I also need to be better about publicly highlighting these skills when they show up, particularly at the start of the year.

I compiled their answers to the last question (“What advice would you give to an incoming sophomore[freshman] at the start of next year on how to best succeed in chemistry[physics]?”) and made quick videos to show to them. I’ve asked students to give advice for incoming students before but I’ve never shared that with either the current class or the incoming class. This time though, I thought they had a lot of good advice and I’m hoping that seeing this from students who’ve gone through the course will help new students get started on the right foot. I’m also hoping that seeing what everyone said (I chose not to censor any comments) that the current students will see the value in asking questions and getting help. Not all of the comments are things that I would necessarily agree with (such as “memorize procedures” and “make sure you make a good notecard” [they are allowed a 3×5 notecard on unit tests but not quizzes, they can have a full sheet of paper for the final]). So I’m still wondering how to shift their thinking about what science is, just as Jo Boaler wants teachers to shift students’ thinking about what mathematics is: “At its core, mathematics is about patterns. We can lay a mathematical lens upon the world, and when we do, we see patterns everywhere; and it is through our understanding of the pattern, developed through mathematical study, that new and powerful knowledge is created.” (Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets, pg 23) I do think that a lot of science is also about finding patterns and applying them. A few of my students said that science class is “kind of like math” – probably not coming from the pattern-finding view and rather thinking of the rote application of a procedure instead. I’d like to disrupt that kind of thinking about science for my students.

So there’s work that I need to do. I’d like to assess more conceptually rather than just whether students can apply an equation. On assessments, I probably ask too many basic application/rote questions and too few conceptual questions that get at their thinking. Basic application/rote questions are easier to answer and easier to grade, but I know it doesn’t necessarily help their learning. I commented to one of my physics classes this year when they complained that a problem was hard that “you just want to apply an equation indiscriminately and I want you to think about it!” I then had to explain what the word “indiscriminately” meant, but once they understood they said “yes, because that’s easier!” It was a moment born out of frustration for me- that class in particular didn’t seem to really enjoy talking about physics, they just wanted to get it done, and I was getting frustrated by that attitude. However, I have to think about what I did or didn’t do to foster that attitude- why didn’t I address it earlier in the school year? I had students in my other physics class who were brave and willing to ask questions  when we were going over the homework and I took care to highlight that, but I don’t think I did that in my other classes. And looking back on it, my two physics classes had very different dynamics this year. Some of that is probably due to the personalities in each class, but I know a lot of that is on me for not doing more to foster a growth mindset, a “learn  from your mistakes” mindset and “ask the questions because surely you’re not the only one who is lost” mindset. There’s too much in my teaching that rewards just getting the right answer and not the process, and I’m still looking to change that. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy, but is that a bad thing?

I also need to recognize where I am exhibiting a fixed mindset about student learning – When and why do I think “oh, they’ll never get it” and give myself a pass? I don’t think I do these things overtly, but sometimes the subconscious messages are the most damaging. I’d like to communicate to my students that my classroom is a place where I expect everyone to grow – you don’t come in knowing everything but everyone does and can grow and the growth is more important than memorizing equations.

A student asked me if teaching doesn’t get boring- aren’t we just doing the same thing, year after year? And I told him no, because the students are different and I change how I teach a little bit every year. (He still seemed skeptical that teaching could continue to be interesting.) I forgot to mention that I’m not just changing how I teach content (adjusting handouts and labs, etc.) but I’m also constantly looking for ways to better build up students’ competence. So I’m excited to think more deeply about how to better address student mindset in science next year, and the little to not-so-little changes I can make to address that. And I’m excited to see how it affects their learning (although, as I’ve said before, education isn’t a controlled experiment).

And here are the students’ advice to the next class, mostly unfiltered:

curriculum dynamics

Someone once, when attempting to complement me on a lesson, told me that it was the kind of lesson that “you put in a can and put on a shelf, and then take it down for next year, it’s that good.” I may or may not have given him an incredulous look, because that isn’t what I aim to do – that particular lab has gone through a different iteration every year since I first tried it three years ago.

Since then, I’ve been noticing when people around me say things that imply that very thing – that at some point, curriculum design is “done”.

A non-teaching friend, when I told her the above story, basically said “Oh- I thought that’s what teachers did. I had no idea that wasn’t the case.”

Last week, my chemistry students complained about how much work their bond energy homework was (keep in mind that they had 20 min in class to start it and it was a total of 4 bond energy/reaction enthalpy calculations). When I said that I didn’t think it was that bad, they responded with “well, you don’t have to do it!” And I gave them that incredulous look (and let me tell you, I have a great incredulous look) and said “you guys know I write the assignments I give you, right?” They thought that I got the worksheets out of a workbook or something and just gave them the photocopied pages.

The next day, my physics students commented that we kill a lot of trees for freshman physics, and one girl said “well, that makes sense because we don’t have a textbook.” Then we got into a discussion of if there are freshman physics textbooks (they know they’re in the minority of having physics first, though I think it’s becoming more common) and I commented how I don’t really like textbooks. Another student responded with “oh, so Ms. Park just thinks she’s better than a textbook”, to which I gave a snarky “well, yeah” but then mentioned how we piece together curriculum from a variety of sources for the physics class and go in a different order than most textbooks, which again, they had no idea about. (We then got into a sidetrack of plagiarism vs. educational copyrights and attribution.)

I find this interesting because even my students don’t realize that the materials I give them are not things that I just “got” from somewhere. And I hate using curricular materials “as-is” because there’s always something I want to change about it – often things go either too far in depth into a certain topic or not in depth enough, they spend more time or not enough time on a subtopic than I’d like. I’ve heard complaints about Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) activities because the written assignments are very reading-heavy, which may be hard for students with lower reading abilities to access, and the files that you get from POGIL when you purchase the materials are all PDFs. The American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) sent out a survey earlier this school year asking if modeling teachers were interested in a pre-printed “course pak” with all of the worksheets in a single bundle that could be ordered per student. I’m not going to lie, I’ve re-typed the POGIL activities I use into Word or Google Docs so that I could modify the materials to my liking. And the AMTA materials are given as Word docs for that very reason, so I have no interest in a pre-printed course pak for my students (also I don’t use every worksheet in either the Modeling Physics or Modeling Chemistry curricular materials, because they don’t fit our school’s curriculum exactly). I also don’t always trust “canned” curriculum, even from respected sources such as POGIL and AMTA, because they don’t know my particular student body and I know they’re designing curriculum that can work as broadly as possible. I kind of hope to never be one of those “edu-proselytizers” for any one curricular resource, because I like to see as many different ideas as possible and I want to keep that open mind. I actually love thinking about curriculum,  developing concepts across a unit, and learning progressions. I get jazzed up about finding a new activity that will work better to help students learn a certain concept, or supplementing existing activities, or presenting existing activities in a new way.

So the curriculum is constantly evolving, but we don’t start each year from complete scratch. We have folders upon folders stored in the Google Drive from previous years, and we pull and copy and modify and add to the folders for this year. There’s probably too much repetition in the Drive, but there’s something nice too about having that historical record- maybe the thing I tried this year doesn’t work as well as the thing I tried the previous year, so next year I’ll start from the previous version. Maybe we take a topic out of the curriculum this year but decide to put it back for next year. (The challenge is keeping the Drive organized in a way to make it easy to find things, which can be rough. Things are a little scary in there, as they would be in any real filing cabinet.)

The physics curriculum I work with was started 12 years ago by my colleagues, and it’s continuously changed every year. Some units change more than others, and I think that’s natural- we only have so much time and energy, and some units we have more ideas for changing than for others. But I’m wondering – is there ever a time when a curriculum is “done”? If I believe I have an awesome curriculum, why should I change it? Should I aim to be “done”?

My gut reaction is that curriculum should always be dynamic and evolving, because we keep learning more about how students learn and how to help them learn better, because new ideas and new technologies come out (although I believe in taking technologies with a grain of salt and not just using something because it’s shiny and new). I also believe that our curriculum, while I like it, has so many places where it can be better. And I think that there’s probably always ways to make teaching and learning better (but that gets into the discussion of “what does ‘better’ look like?”).

I take a lot of pride in the work I’ve done with the curriculum that I currently teach, because I think I’ve put in a lot of (hopefully good) work in making things better every year. And I do think that curriculum should be continually evolving, and I’m always keeping an eye out for a better way to teach what I teach. But it’s hard to give up a way of teaching that seems to work reasonably well for a different idea that may or may not work or that I may or may not be comfortable with. So I’m reminding myself to keep an open mind about things and to take a critical eye to my own work as well as to other people’s work, to cull the bad, keep the good, and make it better. And I’m ok with it never ending – otherwise, I think teaching might become boring and that it never is.

I just want to teach

I’m finally on spring break, and I’m using the time to relax and unwind but also mentally unpack this thought that’s been going to my head the past few weeks:

I just want to teach.

A friend posted on Twitter a few weeks ago how she was “more interested in ‘just’ being a classroom tchr for a few days”, and I responded:

I kept thinking “I just want to teach” when we were doing the “work to rule” thing at my school. I just wanted to be able to come in when I wanted, leave when I wanted, and get my work done on the schedule that I’ve worked out for myself.

The week before spring break started, we had some crazy schedules going on because of PSAT/SAT testing and while I appreciated the time to get some prep stuff done, I kept thinking “I just want to teach”. I wanted to have uninterrupted, normal class time instead of a choppy schedule that confused everyone (one of my first period students showed up to my classroom at 8 am on Thursday, but we were starting with 3rd period on Thursday and she had just forgotten…)

And then I started wondering – what does it mean to “just teach”? I think to the non-teacher, “just teach” only brings to mind the time in front of students. But teaching is so much more than that. I’ve already written about some of the things that teachers do that don’t take place in front of students. A (by no means exhaustive) list:

  • Lesson plan, including (but again not limited to)
    • Revise/update activities and handouts that were used previously (contrary to popular belief, I don’t put a good lesson “in a can” and then take out year after year…)
    • Test activities/labs myself from both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s perspective (particularly anything new). (I do this all the time. And this takes up a significant amount of time.)
    • Write and modify assessments
    • Revise learning targets and their sequence for either this year or next
  • Meet with other teachers to coordinate lesson plans and materials
  • Make copies, prep labs and other classroom activities (and this is a significant chunk of time in chem classes, but also for physics)
  • Communicate with parents, counselors, and/or admin about particular students who may be struggling and/or have a documented learning or medical issue that must be kept track of.
  • Tutor students outside of class (note: not getting paid extra for this, nor expecting to- I feel like that would be borderline ethical at best.)
  • Grade, and grade assessments in a timely manner (the point of the assessment is feedback and feedback doesn’t help much if it comes too late).

There’s a lot that goes into teaching. I’m not actually complaining, I genuinely love it (well, not the grading… but few teachers love grading. And it’s really super important both for me as a teacher and for my students to know where their progress is). But even though I’ve spent some time unpacking what it means to be a “good teacher”, I still struggle with the feeling that “good teachers” are also supposed to be doing more, making a wider impact beyond just their individual classrooms. Some things that have crossed my mind include:

  • Officially leading a PLC (professional learning community)
  • Leading professional development at the school level or higher
  • Presenting at local and national meetings
  • Joining a committee (for… some sort of school-wide initiative)
  • Going into school administration

And I’m not going to lie, I struggle with this idea of making a wider impact. I would like to be a force for change at my school, in my district, in my state. I would like to help, motivate, inspire other teachers of my discipline. And I’d like to actually get to know some of those teachers that I’ve only admired from a distance via Twitter or other online resources. But, with all the demands of actually teaching, I sometimes don’t know when to find the time. I felt super guilty attending NSTA a few years ago because I was gone for two full days and therefore unavailable to my students; attending any mid-year professional meeting gives me this same feeling of guilt (I haven’t been to NSTA since then partly for this reason). A big struggle around the “work to rule” thing at the end of March was the feeling that I was letting down my students. And really, I love being in the classroom and I actually love most of the things that I do to prepare to be in my classroom. I get nerdily jazzed up about resequencing lesson plans from last year or finding a new way to teach a particular topic. All of this takes time and energy, though. And with all of the time and energy it takes to “just” be a good classroom teacher, I wonder – What “additional” responsibilities are reasonable and good for me to take on, and what’s biting off more than I can chew?  How can I balance the need/desire to give my students the best learning experience I can and be available to them with the need/desire to effect positive change beyond my own classroom?

Some of my struggle is that I’m not quite sure what I have to add to the conversation. Am I doing interesting things in my classroom? Maybe? But nothing I do is invented from scratch, so I feel wary about sharing my ideas and taking credit (and sometimes it’s hard to give credit where credit is due, because I don’t know quite where things came from in the first place), although I’m happy to share resources if people ask. I don’t necessarily feel like an “expert” in anything in particular, because I recognize that all I know is my own experience, and my own classroom experience (almost certainly) does not match anyone else’s, even that of other teachers in my school who may be teaching the exact same lesson as I am (different people, different students, different time of day…)

I don’t have any easy answers. And like most things related to education (or really anything that involves large numbers of other real, living, breathing people), I suspect that there is not one right answer for everyone. I’m still feeling out what my “teacher voice” is for a broader audience. But I think it’s important for teachers to ask ourselves these questions, because if teachers don’t speak up, we get left out of the conversation. So I’m trying to figure it out – where is my zone of risk and my zone of danger? As I think about wrapping up this school year (ok, I have a full quarter of school left and we don’t get out until June 20th, which still seems ages away – assuming that CPS finds a way to avoid ending school on June 1) and I think about next year, I’m just musing on what my own next steps might be and how I might venture out a little bit more without feeling like I’ve gotten in over my head.