The Best Thing I Do

Choice

This week’s #YourEduStory blogging topic is “What is the best thing you do in your classroom/school/district/job?”

So far this year my best thing is providing more STUDENT CHOICE. I’ve gotten such better engagement and learning from my students, and just plain completion with offering options for outside reading, writing prompts, sources for evidence/support, even which poem out of several for analysis practice.

By far the biggest difference CHOICE has made in my classroom this year, however, has been through 20% Time Projects. My two elective sections presented their websites and projects during finals week and most of them were brilliant. About 25% were, let’s say, aspirational. But 75% demonstrated passion and engagement. Many students expressed their individual personalities through their projects. A few, such as travel websites and sites on cycling, fashion design, aircraft mechanics, music production, building a car from scrap parts, provided road maps for their creators’ future professions.

I even received the coveted declaration “I Love This Assignment!” unsolicited from several students.

Make no mistake: this was hard for me to manage and for students to execute. Some plan to continue and expand their projects, but some want to start over with a new project. We all learned a lot about how to make the better.

Perhaps my best thing is yet to come.

No Guillotine for Me

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This week’s #youredustory blog topic asks, “How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?” I have a number of favorite teachers, but the first to jump into my mind is Mr. Jaroslav (Jerry) Prosek, my French teacher at Saratoga High School. He had a larger-than-life personality who could strike fear in the hearts of homework neglecters by rapping on their desks with a long red stick. The table at the back of his room also sported a scale model guillotine that he (mock) threatened to use on rascals and ruffians.

I hope I convey the same passion for my subject that he did, but my style is definitely more inclusive and nurturing and less intimidating. My standard response to virtually every off-target response to a question is “close,” even if it’s nowhere near. Instead of a guillotine, the back wall of my room features 4″x 6″ headshots of my students and quotes they’ve submitted to inspire each other. So, in our own ways, we’ve decorated our classrooms to fit our personalities.

Interestingly, I found this question quite difficult. I strive to be as SIMILAR as possible to the teachers I admire, not different. I try to be as interested in my students’ extracurricular lives as Mr. Prosek demonstrated by brining his daughters to my gymnastics meets. I hope to engage my students as much as he did with his favorite quips. (“When colleagues tell me that the subjunctive is dead, I can only reply, ‘I wish it were!'”). Eventually, I hope to be as beloved as he was, one of the first subjects of our high school Facebook page wondering fondly “What ever happened to… Mr. Prosek.” And to his guillotine.

Style Over Substance

Asymmetric Poncho

Today’s FO provides another teaching metaphor: Asymmetric Poncho, a lacy Tunisian crochet pattern from Stitch Diva in a ribbon yarn. It was novel and engaging to learn a new technique and to work with an unusual yarn. I used to love throwing this on over a solid tank or tee in the summer. Then I stopped. Ultimately, this lacy little accessory epitomizes style over substance. It’s far from functional, not even pretending to be warm, and often the unpredictable fringe gets in the way when I’m writing or driving  or even drinking a cup of coffee.

My Asymmetric Poncho = many CCSS “resources” on the market.

(A caveat: I support the Common Core State Standards whole-heartedly. My elementary school colleagues tell me of challenges at their level, but at high school ELA, I see worthy goals. I do, however, have huge issues with the assessment piece. I will save that rant for another post.)

Many apprehensive educators are grasping for quick fixes to implement what is seen as a huge change in curriculum and instruction. (I believe that CCSS simply codifies teaching critical thinking, so these “new standards” shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — once again, more on this later.) So these educators attend to every new shiny product with a CCSS label in the hopes it will just take care of it. And publishers are eager to provide an expensive plethora of worksheets and activities and systems to make CCSS implementation “easy.” Style over substance.

Slapping the CCSS label on a mere worksheet or collection of readings is as effective as throwing my poncho on over a holey tee shirt to wear to a wedding. It may improve the appearance, but only covers up an idea that was flawed to begin with. Teaching critical thinking requires teacher planning, student engagement, interaction, individual attention, and, often, innovation.  No “one-size fits all product” can substitute for a planned approach designed for a particular class or student. That’s what good teaching has always been and always will be. And it’s not easy. Nor is it truly different from what has always worked in the past.

Educators and the public need to look beyond the promises and fears of the CCSS label to the substance of teaching practices and continue the hard work of refining best practices to do what teachers have always done.

I think I now understand why I have never knit another lacy poncho and why all my scarves are more than just accessories. I prefer substance over style.

Inspired by MLK

I’m participating in a weekly blogging challenge with other educators. This week’s post asks “Inspired by MLK: How will you make the world a better place?” My facile answer is simple: “I teach.” I love my profession, I’m (mostly) good at it, and I respect my students and the responsibility we teachers have for guiding them. Together, we will make the world a better place.

I’d also like to respond with another quote I ran across this week from Napoleon Hill: “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Such snippets of excellence can inspire huge audiences.

If my own experience as a student/citizen/consumer is any guide, I am inspired by excellence in so many fields beyond my own activities. They need not be huge accomplishments, but even just, for example, a quietly lovely poster, a perfectly scented candle, an elegant app that does one thing precisly as advertised, a passionately-argued legal position, a song that captures my mood in the exact right moment, or a lovingly prepared meal. I may never aspire to draw, make candles, wrrite appls, re-enter legal practice, or compose music, but experiencing small, great things can inspire me to cook that memorable meal.

Today’s FO made my world a warmer, if not a better place. It’s the Hourglass Sweater from Joelle Halvorson’s Last-Minute Knitted Gifts, done in Baby Cashmerino from Debbie Bliss. It’s one of my earliest sweaters, and I have fond memories working on it in such places as Magic Mountain, while chaperoning Senior Activity Day, and in the car on a family road trip to the SF Bay Area. I dislike seaming, so this sweater knit entirely in the round is one of my favorites.

Hourglass Sweater

Feeling Ambivalent

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Tomorrow is the first day of school in 2015, signaling the end of Winter Break. I am feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, I have cherished every moment of my vacation time. On the other hand, I have so many things to share with my students. Oh, well, I am going back regardless of what I feel.

My Daily FO, the Endless Knitted Cardi Shawl, captures this feeling perfectly. It’s another kit containing pattern and yarn from Stitch Diva. The first time I knitted it in a lovely red wine color. I completed most of it while visiting my beloved mother-in-law Paula at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, finding the yarn and the process incredibly comforting. But after she passed away, I couldn’t bear to even handle it, so I frogged the entire project and put away the yarn for the future. Then I re-knit it slightly larger in lavender. Ambivalence.

Expect the Unexpected

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Students, like all of us, become bored or disengaged when classes are too predictable. I believe that some routine is essential and even comforting, but I love changing things up, especially when it’s least expected. The same holds true of my knitting. Unconventional patterns and fibers (and novel classroom activities) keep me engaged.

This Daily FO (finished object) is Simple Knitted Bodice in Soy Silk, both pattern and yarn from Stitch Diva Studios many years ago. Yes, you read that correctly — soy silk. It’s fiber spun from soy plants. It’s remarkably silky with a lovely sheen and drape. It’s heavier than I expected, though, so the long bell sleeves have become longer over time. I loved working with this yarn and wearing this top. As a knitter with sensitivity to 100% wool, I am always seeking plant vs animal fibers that “give” like wool.

Irony and Blaze – Daily FO

Blaze

I often remind my students that IRONY makes the world go round. Or at least makes memories. Blaze was one of my first sweaters, a qualified success but really the best kind of FAIL (first attempt in learning). It’s a fabulous free pattern by Jenna Adorno from Knitty (Fall 2004). I used Knit Picks Andean Treasure which is 100% alpaca, so, ironically, my brightly colored summer sweater is way too hot for summer. Also, in my newbie arrogance, I ignored the “piquant” designation, meaning it was far from an easy knit. I had to frog it countless times and learned the value of a lifeline. But I’m overall pleased with how it turned out. I’ll wear it again this winter under a blazer.

My inspiration for the future is a reminder of how much I love knitting in the round and alpaca yarn. Also the ribbing is flattering, even to my 10-years older shape. Maybe I’ll knit it again, but longer and with 3/4 sleeves.