Change is good

Like lots of teachers, I am burnt to a crisp mentally by the time June arrives. Some years, this happens sooner – usually those are the years that can be identified as curriculum change years.

This year has been a particular challenge. You see, this year, everything was new again. I have been teaching for a l-o-n-g time and while I never teach the same things the same way twice – which makes sense, the kids are different and have different needs – one would think there would be something that would be connected to prior years.

Not true of the academic year that has just ended. We were charged with changing our math curriculum, our science curriculum, and our English Language Arts curriculum. The level of discomfort with curriculum was pretty high.

The amount of time preparing was off the charts. Why? Because anyone in the education field can tell you that those Grade 3-6 materials suggestions are often (mostly) directed toward students in the middle of that grade span.  In other words, we – my grade level team and I – spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find comparable materials to teach our students.

My husband tells me that I’m a “magic bullet” kind of person. I am continually looking for the just right solution.  To this end, I discovered a great book by Mike Anderson and published by ASCD: The Well-Balanced Teacher.  If you are a study-guide kind of person, here is a link you might enjoy. FB fiends (guilty!) might like this page.

It has been an eye-opening read. And somewhat comforting to know that there are plenty of other educators feeling the same way I do about the need to work smarter and be more balanced.  Ten months of 10- to 12-hour days does not make for a happy, creative teacher.

Summer is a time of renewal. A time to reset those parts of my life that have gone out of balance. It is time to make change good.

Educating the Whole Child

When you ask kids about their favorite subject in school, one of the most popular answers (after lunch) are “recess” and “gym”. Why is that?

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Kids seem to inherently know they need some physical exercise. They know they feel better when they get to move around. Brain and body breaks aside, kids need to exercise.

So why is it that in the current educational culture, recess and gym are given the short straw? This school year, my students were allotted 10 minutes (including travel time) recess time and 50 minutes of gym instruction.  I’m sure they run (!) right home and go outdoors to play after school – not.

From my perspective, childhood obesity is not just some sad story on the evening news. It is real. And we need to start by allowing students more time to get out there and move.

Making Lunchtime Civilized

About six weeks ago, I found an article in the Washington Post that caught my attention: School Lunch Can Be A Teachable Moment.

lunchphoto1Does the institutional nature of school lunch periods make a difference to kids? The idea that using place settings to create a more civilized lunch period sent me straight to Home Goods (our local source of discounted home furnishings).

Our school days are short of time; devoting time for students and teachers to eat together as the author of the Post article advocates just doesn’t seem to be possible. But there was something I could do. My idea? To use one lunch period each week to each with a small group of students.

The environmentally-unfriendly styrofoam trays, and plastic baggie filled with a spork and paper napkin were replaced with actual silverware, plates,lunchphoto2 napkins and place mats. Each week we pick a day for a group of 4 students to eat upstairs – fancy lunch.

It has been such a fun experience for all of us I think. First of all, the calmness of eating in a classroom was not lost on any of the students. Each group has commented on the quietness of eating together, of having quiet conversations.

Many of my students don’t eat at a table with the family for dinner or supper. They shared that they often eat in front of a television, in a living room, using finger foods. We practiced setting a table with silverware, we learn to utensils, we learn to cut food into bite-sized portions.

We are learning to enjoy a meal together.

Life’s Lessons in a Commencement Address

Recently I happened upon a video of Steve Jobs giving the 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University.  Having sat through a number of such addresses – and well aware of how rare is the speech that is remembered 30 minutes afterwards – I was curious what, beside the celebrity of the speech-maker, might be the substance that made this video worth watching.

If you have 15 minutes, the video is posted here, but there is also a transcript link here.

The take-away? Three of life’s most powerful pieces of advice – trust your own instincts; don’t settle, pursue your dreams; live your life as if today was to be your last.

In the current education environment under which I work, it is difficult and near impossible to follow this advice. My instincts tell me that trying to squish a load of (ahem) stuff into the heads of young learners isn’t working. It is making for miserable kids who don’t excel in the learning mode that is required to perform “successfully” (quotes on purpose). I wonder what the percentage of students who just plain give up might be.

I worry a lot about the future of education. Imagine a time when a student being able to pursue the study of something like calligraphy either in high school or college, just because. There is far too much pressure on students and on their training to be successful after graduation(s). Had Steve Jobs not taken the path through college that he did, Apple’s dedication to elegance of design in all things Apple, from fonts to hardware, may not have happened.

I am at a turning point in my career – I don’t have many years left to do this thing that I love so well. “Don’t settle, pursue your dreams….” and “live each day as if it were your last.” Is what is happening in classrooms today the way I want my students to remember their early education? 

When the answer is no, there is work to be done.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.