Pretending To Be . . .

"We Are What We Pretend To Be . . ." Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks, Mountain Goats!

I would like to thank two musicians, whom I do not know, and whose styles are vastly different, for writing lyrics that helped me make it through the past year.  I know this is corny, but I honestly drew on their words more than once a day.

I had quite a bit going on in my life this year, all positive but stressful. My wife and I were living with her parents as we built a house, we were raising a toddler and expecting a new baby in early May. I was enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Connecticut full time in addition to my full time job teaching 8th graders social studies. I was also committed to making major changes in my teaching this year, because I knew that I had to. I couldn’t simply say, “I’ll do it next year.” It had to be now. So, to say I had a lot on my plate is an understatement. At times I thought I couldn’t handle it. One can only put one’s head down and grind away for so long without breaking. I found my first anthem for the year sometime in mid October. The song, “This Year” by The Mountain Goats became the first song I played upon entering my car each morning for my drive to school, and again each afternoon for my drive home. While the verse lyrics did not connect with my situation, as they are about teen angst and not thirty-something issues, the refrain absolutely hit the nail on the head. I would sing these lyrics (in my head, mostly) over and over and over, as if to promise myself that I would make it.

I made it. Well, I mostly made it. I have one more week of face-to-face time at Uconn in the coming weeks, and then I will have made it (although the house is not yet done…)

Not only did I make it, I actually am proud of myself for the first time in my life. I made the changes I wanted to make in my classroom. I moved towards being the teacher I want to be – putting much of what I was learning in my grad program into practice. It would have been much easier to chalk this year up as a loss in my classroom. It would have been easier to say, “I’ll make those changes eventually, because I have enough on my plate right now.” But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I did that. Am I done changing? No. The way I see it is that phase one is complete. I am already thinking about phase two. I am confident that I will continue to make the changes I need to make as I move forward. This is where the second song comes into play. There is an obscure underground hip-hop artist named Edan, and I’ve been a fan of his for over ten years. In his song, “One Man Arsenal,” he recites a line that has been forever etched into my brain, but really took on a sense of meaning this year. In the song, Edan raps, “Limitations strictly defined by motivation…”

Perhaps no truer words have ever been said (to a beat).

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“It” is what it is.

It was inevitable, I suppose. Today I had to inform my students that I would not be able to participate in an 8th grade tradition I created six years ago. It was painful for me. If you’ve ever had to scrap a favorite unit, one near and dear to you, take that pain and multiply it by the death of your first pet (hamsters and fish, not cats and dogs). That is what I am feeling right now.

For the past six years I have helped my 8th grade students put on a performance that we call “the ‘it’ show.” Essentially, the show is sketch comedy from the adolescent mind. Certainly a terrifying prospect for many, but then again, so is teaching middle school. Those of us that do teach middle school (especially 8th grade) will tell you that it is a magical place that teeters between the youthful innocence of primary grades and the complexity and maturity of high school. When the stars align, and you can find the perfect balance between the two – it is, in my opinion, the best experience in the world. It is a multi-layered never-ending pool of ZPD. The “it” show was the pinnacle of such feats. Imagine taking a large group of 8th grade students (last year we had 70 kids involved in some aspect of the show) and creating a production from the ground up. On day one, usually in the first or second week of March, we have nothing. We are a blank slate. We have no script, no skit ideas, nothing. By the second week of June, we have an hour long show (sometimes longer) written and performed by the students – complete with sets, lights, sound technicians and the works. We also have a shoe string budget, and can only practice on the stage the week of the show, as the stage is also the band room. Essentially the “it” show is DIY culture at its best. The show allows students the opportunity to be creators of content instead of consumers.

The general ethos of the show is one of originality. Themes change every year. No skits can be similar to any from previous years. Simply recreating a popular YouTube video is out of the question. Kids are pushed out of their comfort zones as they perform on stage for an audience of 400 people. Each year I go into a tailspin of panic as the shows draws close, and each year they pull it off – making me exceedingly proud of them. And they are so proud of their accomplishment. Kids who would never sit at the same lunch table are high fiving each other and hugging on stage. It then becomes part of their social curriculum vitae, and it also gets a dose of peer review. The previous 8th grade (current freshmen) come to the show in droves, and there are “it” cast alumni from grades 10, 11, 12, and even a few college kids who were part of the very first show. How is that for community building? The laughter that gets shared in the meetings and the bonds that get built in this setting are addictive to say the least. It allows kids to be awesome. It allows them to take a chance at performing. It allows them to create and solve problems authentically. In short, it is the most meaningful thing I do as their teacher.

And I can’t do it this year.

The show requires hundreds of hours of my time outside of the school day. We meet every weekday in the month of May, until 5pm sometimes. We work on it online on the weekends. I become nonexistent to my wife for about a month. She is begrudgingly cool with it. Last year we had a baby, and my time commitment to “it” shrunk. We are having another baby at the end of April, right when the meetings take off. I am also finishing up a master’s degree. We are also building a house. There is nothing I can do, except turn the show over to the kids. I will not deprive them of the experience. Just because I can’t do it, doesn’t mean that they can’t. I have found colleagues willing to help out (two have daughters in 8th grade, so their commitment to the show is personal). If there ever were a class that would be capable of doing this on their own, this is the class. What kills me is that I won’t be able to do it with them.

(here is a sampling of the 5th “it” show – the theme was time travel, and it was blended video with live on stage action)

Human . . . All Too Human

I made a mistake today. Not just any mistake, mind you. Today  I made a character mistake. Those are the worst kind. I can handle a teaching mistake. I never pretend to be infallible and actually relish in the moments when a student corrects me on something. But character mistakes are unforgivable. I take my teacher-as-role-model status very seriously. I always try to model acceptable behavior both in and out of the classroom. Case in point, a few years ago my wife and I went on a vacation to St. Maarten . . . and so did a student and her family. We saw them several times, usually at dinner. I made sure that I was drinking soda every time. My wife laughed at me and called me paranoid. Maybe so, but I would not have it any other way.  So when I mess up, it kills me. Today I messed up – but the funny thing is that I am torn with conflicting emotions about it.

It was last period of the day and I had my highly talkative, yet high achieving section. It is March and they are in 8th grade. We begin a week of state testing on Monday, and they begin their transition to the high school the week after. If the stars were ever aligned for off-task difficult to focus behavior, this is it. Yesterday I launched a lesson on propaganda, specifically focusing on WWI propaganda posters. It is a topic I love to explore with kids. It is actually one of my favorites as it combines abstract thinking with visual literacy and introduces a healthy dose of skepticism that can be applied throughout all media. Today I had hoped to get them started by explaining a few things that didn’t get uncovered yesterday, and then having groups explore a series of WWI posters to determine the propaganda techniques being used. Three cheers for some structured social negotiation of meaning!

It didn’t turn out as I intended, but it did turn out as I had hoped. Confused? Me too.

I could not get the kids focused to start the class. Side conversations about typical 8th grade topics were gushing from their mouths at full force. I am not one to yell, never have been. I can’t do it, even if I tried. My management style does not need that tool in my teacher utility belt. However, nothing worked today. Nothing. I could not get through the five minutes I needed to set them up before sending them on their way. I became visibly flustered. And then I stopped teaching. I walked out of the room. I felt as if I should not have done this. This was the mistake in character and I should have handled it differently. My classroom fell silent. Kids rushed to the door, peeking into the hallway. Audible murmurs of confusion could be heard. “Is he mad?” “What should we do?” “Is he coming back in?”

When I reentered the room a few moments later, a student had begun teaching the class. He was up at my laptop/projector, scrolling through the example posters I had lined up for them. It was initially meant as a joke, except I still wasn’t laughing. I sat at my desk and did some work. The student continued to teach. The rest of the class was engaging in on-topic conversation dealing with the techniques being used in the posters. I continued to do work. They continued to engage in meaningful and high quality discussion. I listened to them while I worked (by this point I was pretending to do work and listening to their conversation instead, just to see where it went). Here’s the thing that shook me . . . the absolutely killed it. They were on fire. They were coming up with the things I felt that I had needed to explain to them all on their own. They were being respectful to one another by letting the quiet kids speak and engaging in meaningful dialogue. Even the side conversations were on topic. I continued to sit and do busy work until the bell rang. They continued to have the conversation I had hoped for, but I struggled to come to terms with the fact that it was not done as I had intended. I wonder how much of their actions were based on my reaction? Then I wonder if that ultimately matters. In the end, they took away what I had hoped for. How much of what I am feeling is simply crushed ego that they didn’t need me to do it?

The Best Fever Story Ever.

I haven’t had a fever in a really long time. A few years at least. When I was a kid I used to have the most intense fever dreams, you know, the hallucination type pseudo-night terrors? Yep. Had one earlier tonight, and it got me thinking about my favorite fever induced “dream.” Since I’m already a bit delirious, I figured I’d share it with you now . . .

 

Christmas Eve nineteen eighty-something. I don’t recall the exact year but it was when shows like He-Man and Thundercats ruled the after school airwaves. I was running a mildly high fever, or so my Mom tells me, somewhere in the 101 range. Per tradition in our house growing up, my siblings and I were allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve (in retrospect an extraordinarily calculated move to occupy us for a few hours before bedtime). I opened some anime ninja VHS tape (I wish I still had it, or even had the name of it) and watched it with my younger brother. Mistake number one: 1980’s anime ninja movies with a fever don’t go well (which probably inspired this tweet earlier tonight).  As bedtime approached, I recall feeling worse – shaky, jittery, whiny, typical fever attributes of an 8 year old kid (and, I suppose a 32 year old man). I was shipped off to bed anyways. Asleep in minutes. I remember waking with a start – eyes exploding open with the realization that I had been asleep for hours and it must be Christmas morning, who cares that it was still dark out? Even at that age I knew that technically “a.m.” meant morning and morning was fair game. I got up out of bed and approached the door, choosing not to wake my brother for whatever reason. My bedroom door opened into the living room in our apartment, the Christmas tree was in direct line of sight, the stockings hung off to the right on the armoire. I opened the door a crack to make sure the coast was clear. What I (thought) I saw shook me to the bone with both delight and fear. There he was bent over underneath the tree arranging presents. It was Santa.

 

I’m sure that my eyes grew wider than they ever have and my heart started pounding, sending the fever drenched blood pulsing through my veins. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. There he was. He was in my living room. I quickly scanned about for the tray of cookies to see if he had eaten them. As I was scanning the room I vividly recall the feeling of my stomach sinking. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be awake. I was going to ruin everything. The guilt was overwhelming (My Dad is Jewish and my Mom is Irish Catholic so I’ve got the self-guilt thing pretty much covered). I shut the door as quietly as I could and stood there frozen with fear. If Santa knew I was awake it would jeopardize my entire household’s Christmas. So I stood at the door unable to move. Suddenly it dawned on me that if Santa were in my house that would mean he would have to leave at some point, and when he did leave, I would be able to see the reindeer fly! With that realization, I totally forgot about why I was standing as still as a statue. My ninja moves from earlier in the evening kicked in, and a few strategic jumps and gratuitous 360s later I was at my window, face firmly planted on the cold glass, looking up. I waited, never losing faith that I would be the only kid to lay eyes on the most magical of  (commercial) Christmas mysteries. Still I waited, eyes focused like a hawk for the slightest movement in the night sky. I waited some more with supreme confidence that at any moment I would see the sleigh overhead. I waited for what seemed like hours (and in reality was probably 10 minutes). I finally blinked, and with that blink came a creeping realization. The first doubt, not in Santa, but in seeing the reindeer fly. The doubt came faster now, like a rolling boulder, when suddenly it hit me. How did I know that Santa didn’t come from this direction? I didn’t know his route. He could have flown in any direction. Maybe he was zigzagging to avoid enemy aircraft (I had recently seen Top Gun, too and was quite certain that the Russian Mig pilots did not celebrate Christmas)? With that, I crawled back into bed feeling dejected. I awoke a few hours later with the best fever induced story of my life.

 

Just make it up.

A major mental alarm just went off in my head and I am scared beyond belief right now. We are creating a generation of liars. Okay, that might be too strong – but not too far from the truth.

I am in the middle of grading some position papers from my 8th graders as our wrap up to my unit on the paradox of modernization. Admittedly this “paper” is more artificial in nature than I would like, as it is part of a lesson I had to design for my practicum class in my masters program (a lesson which I am seeing now, was designed rather poorly). Despite the heightened artificiality of it, I am seeing some stomach churning, rib stinging, cold-sweat-inducing issues that are totally removed from my specific lesson. These issues I am having such a hard time dealing with are directly related to the nature of “teaching to the test.” The test I am referring to is our state writing prompts. These prompts require students to take a stance on an issue presented, one in which they have very limited background information aside from the paragraph introducing the prompt. The students have 45 minutes to complete this persuasive piece, usually framed as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or something along those lines. These prompts are then scored holistically based upon how well the student elaborates and uses persuasive techniques like, you know, statistics and such in their writing. Okay fine. Makes sense, right? We cite sources to add to the strength of our arguments. It seems like an important skill for them to have. Here is the problem – the prompts the students are asked to write for the state tests are out-of-the-blue topics. As I stated earlier, the only real background information given is in the paragraph introducing the prompt. So where do the kids get the statistics for their prompts? They make them up. That’s right. They imagine experts and statistics that will support their stance and include them. They lie. The more they lie and the more creative their lies are, the better their score will be. Viewing this with a behaviorist lens (Skinner, Thorndyke, etc) leads down a scary path indeed. Rewards in the form of acceptance (teacher, parent, societal) for high prompt scores derived from making things up to support your claims will not yield long term favorable results.

So what about reality? What about when they are asked to write a position paper where they have, say, an entire units worth of information at their disposal? It seems that they fall back to the tired and true (and continually reinforced) method of making things up that suit their needs. I dread the type of “informed” 21st century citizen this kind of education produces. I feel paralyzed and helpless in my attempts to change it.

e-portfolios and skaters (or, X-folios)

This week’s grad class reflection asked us to think about what should be included in e-portfolios. Naturally, I arrived at that destination in a roundabout way. Please note: this is NOT supposed to be a polished post (breaking the rules, I know) but at least it is published. My goal is to publish more, for myself, instead of getting caught up in writing the elusive perfect post. Here goes:

Whenever I have thought of portfolios in the past, I have always thought of showcases for exemplary work. Shine time, so to speak. The problem with shine time is that, well, it is bogus. We don’t shine all the time. Not everything we do is exemplary. Portfolios shouldn’t be cherry picked examples of what you are able to do on certain days when the stars align. Portfolios should showcase failures along side the successes. Think of it as a skate video (any skaters?). For those not in the know, skate videos are similar to portfolios in many ways. Skaters use these highly polished videos to showcase themselves in hopes of acquiring and retaining sponsors (much like we have spoken of portfolios as a means of acquiring a job). Frequently the more polished the video, the better received it is. These videos not only showcase the skater’s ability to do a variety of tricks, but the music selection, the editing, and even the banter in between sets give the audience a sense of who this skater really is (or who they want us to believe they are, and perception is reality, right??) The same holds true for our portfolios. We select items that essentially put out the brand we are looking to create for ourselves. What we include tells the story we want to tell. Here is the difference: skaters often include the not so pretty bail clips. They show the mess ups. Do we show ours? Why not? What are we afraid of? Let’s continue this line of thinking for a moment. I believe that the mess-ups in skate videos, while perhaps serving to increase the “wow” factor in a visceral sense, also highlight how hard it is to do what they do. It takes practice and fortitude and a whole heap of other inspirational character traits typically seen on posters in your vice-principal’s office. Perhaps they want us to see how hard it is? Perhaps the kid who sees his favorite skater mess up over and over and then finally nail the trickwill be encouraged in his own attempts to improve. Why don’t we do this for our students professionally? Why are we stuck on the “teacher must be infallible” mode? Wouldn’t it be more empowering to our students if they saw some vulnerability in us? Wouldn’t perspective employers want to know how we plan on fixing mess-ups? No matter how well you interview, no employer is naive enough to believe they are hiring Superman (← a joke in light of today’s Oprah fiasco. If you don’t know, Google it). You are human, and therefore imperfect, and you will be imperfect on the job. How you deal with the imperfections says more about you as a professional than how well you cherry pick your best clips.

Witty Title Escapes Me . . .

I have never really reflected on how I actually learned some of the things I know how to do. It took a required post for one of my grad school classes to make me stop and think about what should be common knowledge (for myself). Please note, before you go judging the quality of this program based on what I am about to share, that this was simply an initial thought question meant to frame our learning for the next week. So, in the name on openness . . . here is what I wrote:

Me+time+solitude+interest=learning

I think I’ve pretty much said all I need to say in my title.

Considering that Mike (<– the professor) might be looking for a more “meta” explanation, I’ll pander to his desires in this instance.

Outside of the typical multiple intelligence babble we revisit in PD every few years, I’ve never really given thought to how I have learned what I know, in non-academic instances. It is also scary to think about how little I actually know outside of a few things. So, here are the only three things I know how to do:

  • DJ/scratching (<– the hip hop sounds created from moving a record back & forth in a rhythmic fashion) has been a hobby/passion since 1995. I consider the artistic side of it akin to playing a percussion instrument. I never took lessons. I just did it. I tinkered around. I listened to music that had scratching in it. I tried to emulate that. It was a long road to get to where I am today (which is far from good, by my standards) but I did it all myself. No manual. No assistance. Just drive and passion and time. (p.s. the link is NOT me . . . not even close)
  • Editing video: Same as above. I always had a drive to do it (wanted the Fisher Price PXL2000 so badly . . . still do) and once editing became more accessible, I jumped on board and dove in head first. I spent HOURS doing it and wasn’t afraid to mess up. This, however, resulted from another nonacademic learning endeavor . . .
  • Technology/Computers: While I don’t know code or the stuff under the hood, I have managed to teach myself quite a bit about using computers (both personally and professionally) since 2005. I was a technophobe prior to 2005. Email and word were my limits. Then I had “the awakening” and got the drive to learn and lost the fear and jumped in and started pressing buttons. The more time I spent, and the more buttons I pressed, the easier it got. I am now the “go-to tech guy” at my school.

Essentially, I’ve just wasted a bunch of your time I guess, because in retrospect, my title really did sum things up.  If I may briefly speak to academic learning, I think that there were only two classes in my life that I ever truly felt like my brain was growing . . . dendrites being birthed and whatnot. Both were late in my undergrad career and both, now that I have the vocabulary to understand, were quite constructivist in nature. The classes (History in the Topics of Ideas, and, Modernism) required a ton of reading (mostly Literature, some Philosophy, etc) but with little guidelines. We created our own sense of importance concerning what we read and wrote lengthy papers to thematic, minimalist questions. The book I read about WWI and Modern Memory has had a lasting influence on my teaching. I can quote Baudelaire and Kafka nine years after reading them. These, among other things, have had a profound impact on how I view the World. I learned it because I had the freedom to make it my own.

The importance of @ (or how Twitter kills social norms)

(Note: The tone of this post is not meant to be negative or antagonistic. I am not singling any individual out. I have been thinking about this concept since my reintroduction and subsequent borderline obsession with Twitter in September of 2009. And I am still around because several key individuals were supportive enough to do the very thing I am writing about below.)

Photo by: cbcparklane

Here is a thought. If Twitter were a giant cocktail party, as I have heard it compared to in the past, in which we are all attendees; then what role would the @ play? To the best of my knowledge, the @ is a device intended to let an individual know you are addressing them directly in conversation, amid all the other banter and general chaos of the stream. It is the closest thing we have to turning and looking directly at someone, or otherwise gaining his or her attention, before speaking. In real life, if someone goes out of his or her way to gain your attention prior to speaking to you, how do you react? I suppose it depends on who is attempting to gain your attention and your relationship to them.  But let’s just say that we are, in fact, at a giant cocktail party. That analogy would perhaps serve to indicate that we intend on being social. Twitter is billed as social media, right? Sure, there are wallflowers at most events and I’ve been guilty of such in the past (come to think of it, maybe that is subconsciously why I became a DJ). People can choose to not engage. I am interested here in exploring what happens when they do choose to engage.

People arrive to parties at different times and with different levels of comfort with their surroundings. I joined Twitter in September of 2008. My account lay dormant for over a year, and once I came back to it I had no one to “introduce me” to the attendees of the already raging party. I played the wall for a while, listening, learning the dialect, trying to get comfortable enough to engage in a conversation. Admittedly my first few attempts to engage were socially awkward. Not having any followers made it more difficult. That is the underlying paradox of this medium. Tweeting with no followers seems pointless, but you won’t gain followers without tweeting. At the party, you won’t be invited into the conversation unless you speak up. No one is going to be like, “Hey silent dude over there in the corner, tells us what you think about . . .” So what happens when a new arrival tries to engage? Usually it comes as a response to a question posed by someone (“Anyone know of an app that does such and such?”). So, being brave, you @ the inquirer. If at a party you were do you this, if you were to gain someone’s attention to answer their query, what might their response look like? Would they look directly at you, listen, and then turn back to their ongoing conversation without uttering even a simple acknowledgement of their receipt of your advice? No way. Our social norms would suggest that a cursory acknowledgement is in order. Further, continuing with the party analogy, if you were to then attempt to engage this person again, say with a question of your own or perhaps an anecdotal reply to an offering of their daily minutia in an attempt to be conversational, and your @ appeared to have fallen on deaf ears (or blind eyes may be more appropriate), what then? How would that go over in real life? I’d be willing to bet that if in real life someone were to ask you a question or attempt to engage in conversation, however inconsequential, you are all polite enough, or at least schooled in the acceptable norms of our society, that you would never think of offering the cold shoulder. So why is it different on Twitter?

I know that Twitter isn’t real life. I also know that one of the benefits of using asynchronous media is that you are allowed to pick and choose who you correspond with. I get that. But I also question it. I question it on our level, on the level of educators. We are all here, essentially, because we want to learn. We want to interact with others who are involved in the same profession as us. We want to learn from them. Since “they” are here too, it implies that they are searching for the same thing.  So if someone makes it clear in their bio that they are an educator and they’re here for primarily the same reasons as you, why not invite them into the fold? I understand that a limit on people you follow might be needed to either, a) maintain stream sanity, and/or b) keep things relevant, as too much connection means you’re more likely to be disconnected. But seriously, if you’re not @The_Real_Shaq or @aplusk you could at least respond to @’s. Give some confidence to those brave enough to engage. Give them reason to stick around. While the outward appearance may not be that of a face-to-face encounter (at the cocktail party), I contend that the social piece, the human connection, is the same despite the vessel.

89 Opportunities

I’m ready.

I am prepared to scrap my “lessons” from now until the end of the year, the “lessons” that I have meticulously crafted over the past five years. I am ready to toss them aside because I have been remade. Better. Stronger. Faster. Well, maybe not so much. I am feeling the after effects of the revitalization that was TEDxNYED. Drawing heavily from Mike Wesch, Jeff Jarvis, and Chris Lehmann’s talks – I have arrived at the intersection of “school is real life” and “how do I make that work, exactly?” This is a busy intersection with a lot traffic (ideas) and I’m playing the role of traffic cop. I’ve never been a traffic cop before. I know what I am supposed to be doing, and I know how certain aspects of the job should look, but I also know that at any moment I could cause a major collision. Thankfully metaphorical collisions are not fatal, so I will continue without reservation.

Mike Wesch, in his TEDxNYED talk, said something that has become my mantra of the moment. In talking about his students, particularly large “lecture” classes, he said that he looks at the people in the seats not as burdens, but opportunities. I want to create a project that involves the collective efforts of my entire 8th grade class. I have, in my charge, eighty nine opportunities. We are just finishing up a rather lengthy unit that, according to the curriculum (Which, by the way, was last updated in 1999. Really.) is on The Holocaust. In actuality, it is about the concepts of dehumanization and compliance and how those are essential factors in all genocides throughout history. In years past, the trajectory has gone something like:

  • Holocaust unit –> U.S. lack of response –>Rwanda –> World’s lack of response –> Darfur –> World’s lack of response
  • Ultimately this raised numerous philosophical and moral questions about human nature and why we never intervene.
  • The students were obviously outraged and wanted to do something
  • A few years back we made documentaries in groups and posted them to our district-hosted edublog site (admittedly not the best design or most user friendly – and it was before I had a creative commons conscious, apologies). This was great in that the kids were engaged and created work for the World to view, which it did. We had something like 700 visits from all over the World. Small numbers for certain, but we didn’t really promote the site. Nonetheless, the kids were engaged in meaningful authentic education.

This brings me to the present. I scrapped that assignment last year because of some personal reasons and additionally, the more I hammered home the Darfur thing in light of other news coming out of the region, the more I became one of those opportunistic blowhards that was content swimming in the echo chamber of “never again.”

I want to take a new path. It occurred to me that it was easy for my students to want to do projects about people in far away lands suffering in a way that they (my students) could never imagine. The reality of the people in Darfur was so removed from my students that it gave them an easy way out. What I mean is that my students were clearly not the perpetrators in the situation and neither could they claim to be compliant. We were making videos to educate the World, after all. That is too easy. The major theme in my Holocaust/genocide unit is that the essential factor is dehumanization. If there is no single group of people on the Earth that are born killers, and if you need many killers for genocide to happen, then killers need to be made. Scholars have studied a long time about what makes otherwise good people commit acts of evil. I don’t expect my 8th graders to solve that. What I do want to do is focus on the one thing that connects their world with that of the perpetrators: dehumanization, compliance and a sense of removal from responsibility. This lends itself to what I want to do with the rest of the year. I want the kids to create a site that deals with the concepts listed above. Most of us have dehumanized someone at some point in our lives, we have stood by compliant as others did the dehumanizing, and at age 14 we were right in the thick of it. Add “cyber bullying” to the mix and we have ourselves one heck of a relevant topic that hits close to home. None of my students have ever razed a village, but they all have participated in dehumanizing someone or stood by silent as they witnessed it happening. This will cause discomfort in place of the self-righteousness that frequently surfaced when making videos about dangerous situations in developing countries from the comfort of our suburban school.

Here is my problem, I am struggling with how to hold my students accountable in a non-traditional manner. The videos we made two years ago were still kind of cookie cutter-ish. I made them fit my arbitrary criteria for grading purposes. I don’t want to do that this time around. I want to be as organic as possible, yet I know that not everyone will step up to the plate. What do I do about them? How do I please parents and administrators that expect grades? How can I have it both ways? I would really appreciate feedback/ideas.

Shifting Priorities

When I was an undergrad at Keene State College I vividly remember sitting in my ESEC320 (social studies methods) class doing an assignment that included something to the effect of projecting where you wanted to be professionally within five years. The professor in this class was one of the select few teachers in my life who inspired me by simply “doing it right.” It seems, upon reflection, that most of my inspiration to do what I do came from teachers who, I felt, were doing it wrong. I wanted to become a teacher to balance out the cosmos – being good at what I do because I had learned what not to do from them. That is a different post for another time. The more I try to recall this assignment that I was doing way back in the fall semester of 2000, the more I realize that I don’t vividly recall it so much as I remember one certain aspect of it. I remember thinking a reasonable goal for myself was to be named Time Magazine’s Teacher of The Year within five years of getting my first job teaching. I cringe at the cockiness of my younger, more ignorant self. However, I must admit that my narcissistic goal never really went away.

I started at Pawcatuck Middle School in 2004 as the 8th grade social studies teacher. It was my second year as a professional, but in my eyes it was a fresh start. The year before (03-04) I taught high school special education in a neighboring town. It was one of the worst experiences of my life for numerous reasons (the least of which were the students, for what its worth . . . I still am in contact with several of them). Pawcatuck was a new start. With this new start I renewed my Teacher of The Year goal in my head. It became an added extrinsic motivation. I was always intrinsically motivated to be a good teacher, and for whatever selfish flaw in human nature, I thought being Teacher of The Year would be my validation. To be clear, I did not wake up each day and think “I want that title, so I will put the extra work into my lessons and I will artificially create bonds with students simply to obtain this title.” But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t sometimes the extra push to keep going. Then things began to change. A sense of professionalism began to grow inside me. The desire for trophies and titles subsided. Soon after things really began to change. I discovered Twitter.

Twitter has helped me to find people who have pushed me into a whole new realm of thinking. I still have a hard time using the term PLN in reference to my network, because to me that implies a collaborative effort and, to date, I have consumed from the trough of knowledge much more than I have contributed, all banal things aside. It is hard not to see Twitter as a modern-day/grown up/professional card shop. When I was a kid I half heartedly collected baseball and basketball cards. I would save money from my paper route and go down to the local card shop and buy packs of cards (usually “skybox”, which in hindsight were the ugliest things imaginable. Picture the artificial laser background option for school photos in the early 90’s and add a superimposed poorly photoshopped player on top, devoid of any context).

so ugly

Obviously the great players of the moment were highly sought after and then placed either in the sleeves of protective binders or in the individual hard plastic cases, either way to be shown off. My friends and I would then gather to discuss who “we had.” There are some connections to Twitter here, in that for a while it was all about “who I followed.” I would look at my sidebar at the avatars and feel like I was cool because I “had” some important educational technology guru. It was my modern-day card binder. Like I said, an online grown-up card shop. Thankfully this thinking has also begun to shift. Sorry for the digression of the real topic, but this is a live-stream-of-consciousness post (that I am mostly writing for myself, anyways).

Returning to my point . . . the individuals I have been learning from online have done more to reboot my professionalism and my philosophy on education than any book I have read in the last several years. Probably because I was not that interested in educational theory and, instead, read content related political science/philosophy type books. Thankfully you all have been keeping up with the pedagogical theory and are able to reduce it to a concise 140 with helpful links. The bottom line is that I have awoken from my slumber and have been recharged and energized and inspired to change. Through you all I have seen where it is I want to be and what I really need to be doing in my classroom. I am constantly measuring myself against your tweets. I feel that I have a lot of room to grow. I call my own practices into question much more. I have always been a self-doubter, which in my opinion can be a very good attribute, and connecting with other educators who are doing amazing things has only served to enhance that doubt in myself. Finding the “doubting balance” is key, though. Too much doubt is paralyzing and counterproductive.

At this exact moment in my career, to use a poor sailing regatta analogy, I have rounded the first bouy and feel as if I am moving downwind with a healthy dose of doubt in my sails. I can see where I want to be and where I need to be and I know the route I will use to get there. But I am not yet there. And then the winds shift. Yesterday I was nominated for Teacher of The Year in my district. I was called into the lunchroom during 8th grade lunch and the committee made the announcement in front of all of my students. I was thoroughly embarrassed because, I frankly feel that I do not deserve it. The goal I had set for myself upon the start of my career became attainable (it is my 6th year) after I made up my mind that I no longer wanted it. I feel that I may have potential for the title a few years from now, when I am putting into practice the pedagogical beliefs I hold now. But to receive the nomination now, based on potential alone, is very much like Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize so early in his term. I voted for him and generally support him, but still question the wisdom of that decision. I don’t want to be considered for Teacher of The Year based on potential and theory. I have two weeks to turn in my paperwork to be considered for candidacy. I am unsure if I will. Life sure is funny that way, huh?