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Thanks-vember 16

16 Nov

I’m thankful for people who are enthusiastic about their jobs. People for whom a career is not just something you do 9-5, Monday – Friday, to get a paycheck. Specifically, I’m thankful for educators who are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do.

Example 1: My friend Ms. D teaches Drama and English at a local high school. Tonight I am going to see her drama kids perform a modern adaptation of a Commedia Del Arte play, A Doctor In Spite of Himself. She commissioned a local playwright to adapt and modernize the play for her students. She then spent hours designing, directing, and rehearsing the show. Not during school hours, but after school and on weekends. Remember, she is also teaching English, so she has other students. Papers to grade. Tests to create, administer, and score. But because she cares about what she does, because she enjoys it and wants her students to enjoy it as well, she puts in the extra time.

Example 2: My 3rd-grade student teaching partner and I met with our principal today to present the idea of a school garden. We want to create a school garden, in the vein of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard. It’s an ambitious project, and we knew we would need a lot of teacher support. We presented the idea, and he loved it. He had ideas of his own to add, and after we left and were inspecting a possible garden site, he literally ran out of the office to tell us that another teacher would be interested in working with us. He obviously loves his job, and our school, and wants it to be the best place possible.

I’m sure there are other professions in which people love their work to this extent, but when you work in education, passion pays off. Students respond to teachers who enjoy what they are doing. Teachers respond to principals and administrators who refuse to quit. Returning, if I may, to my post about the lecture given by Pasi Sahlberg, I believe that teachers who are passionate are more respected – because they clearly care about what they do. They can afford to be passionate because they have spent 5 or 6 years preparing to be teachers. They know that teaching is the place for them, and they work hard to get there.

What kind of education system could we have in the US if every teacher was passionate about their job?

Thanks-vember 15: That’s so…

15 Nov

Today, I was thinking about words. Specifically, words that hurt. Words that make people feel like they are less than human. Words that have somehow become a part of “normal” speech. Words like “gay” and “retarded” – when they are used as synonyms for “bad,” “dumb,” “stupid,” etc…

The school culture at my middle school placement is such that these words are not used (at least not in my hearing). Kids are still kids, but these particular kids have been in school together, more or less, since kindergarten. Bullying is not a big problem at our school. All the kids are “different” in one way or another, and no one seems to be singled out.

I know it’s not like that at all schools. I know we are in a nice little bubble of respect, where students and teachers can mostly coexist happily. But I want it to be like that at all schools, no matter what the socioeconomic status of students, no matter what their neighborhood, no matter what their background. It’s not that way now, but maybe it could be. If we treat our students with respect, and expect them to act respectfully towards us and towards each other, isn’t that a huge step in the right direction?

Today, I am thankful for all the people in the world working towards ending hatred, ending bullying, and ending the idea that the word “gay” is a synonym for “stupid” or worse. I’m thankful for people who make things like this:

And for musicians like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis who create songs like this one:


Macklemore is really popular with my 7th graders, and really popular with my friends. It’s awesome to see someone with a lot of influence with such a positive message.  Words are powerful, and I think we need to make sure we are teaching our students to use the right ones.

Thanks-vember 14: Seattle

14 Nov

Every morning I try to give myself 10-15 minutes with a cup of coffee and the online news. I usually end up reading a bit of The Seattle Times, a bit of NPR, and a bit of BBC World News. I don’t get a lot of down time, and I cherish this little moment of quiet before my day begins.

This morning, on the Seattle Times front page, I saw an article titled “Finland’s educational success story: Less testing, more trusting.” The article focuses on Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish Education Minister, and author of the book “Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland” (Teachers College Press, 2011).

So, why should we care about Finland? Well, in case you haven’t heard – Finland’s education system has been ranked at the top of the pack since 2000, when the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) was first introduced. Finnish students spend less time in the classroom than Americans, and yet they routinely score better in math, science, language, etc…

Pasi gave a free lecture this evening at The University of Washington, which I and another teacher-student attended. The first thing he said was “I’m not trying to convince you that Finland has the best education system in the world… because we couldn’t care less if we are the best.”

No, what they care about in Finland is providing each student with an education that best fits his or her needs. Pasi said that Finland’s goal is: “We want to have a school system where pupil’s success doesn’t depend on their home background.” That is, students can succeed regardless of their socioeconomic status. Remember, many studies have been done in the US “proving” that socioeconomic status is the number one indicator of a child’s ability to succeed in school. Finland threw that idea out the window.

The idea of the lecture was not to say “Finland is better than you” or “Here is how to make the US’s education system exactly like Finland’s,” but instead to point out some key differences, and perhaps how the US can improve education based on Finland’s ideas.

I would say that Pasi’s message was broken into two main points: equity and professionalism.

40 years ago, the Finnish government looked at their country, and at their education system, and knew that something needed to be fixed. They worked on creating equal footing for all students – on improving equity (the well-being of students, providing resources to those in need, etc…) and then worked on improving education. Students who aren’t fed breakfast can’t learn. Students who have to stay home to take care of their younger siblings can’t learn. These things needed to be fixed before the actual problem of school could be tackled.

Additionally, teachers are respected in Finland, on the same level as doctors and lawyers. In fact, it takes as much schooling to become a Finnish primary teacher as it does to become a lawyer or doctor. All teachers must have Master’s degrees, which usually takes about 6 years to obtain. The programs are not easy to get into – the University of Helsinki received about 2,000 applications last year and admitted 120 people to the program. Once these highly qualified teachers are in the classroom, they are given control over what they teach – there are no standardized tests, and loose curriculum standards that must be met.

Pasi shared a video with us, contrasting the high-pressure schools of South Korea (another top-scoring country) and the schools of Finland. I couldn’t find the South Korea part to share with you, but here is the section on Finland:

The lecture was recorded, and will be put up as a podcast on the UW Finnish Studies Webpage. I’ll post a link to it when it’s up.

What does this have to do with being thankful? I am thankful for the opportunity to attend events like this. I’m thankful to live in a city with a highly respected university which attracts speakers from all over the world. I’m thankful for the opportunity to hear about education systems in other countries. I’m also thankful for the opportunity to connect with my fellow teachers and discuss these new ideas.

Giving thanks, November 11

11 Nov

It’s Veteran’s Day.

My father is a Veteran of the Vietnam war. He avoided most combat by becoming an officer, and living in Japan flying supplies to aircraft carriers. But for a long time he wouldn’t talk to me about it, until he was sure I was old enough to understand.

War changes people. And so today, I am thankful that my dad is alive, that he wasn’t changed too much by being part of a war, and that he is the man he is today.

That’s something I’m thankful for today, but I also want to share a story with you:

I work an occasional job as a manager of Performing Arts Centers at some local schools. I manage events ranging from orchestra concerts to week-long conferences. I meet a lot of interesting people. (I’m often yelled at by these interesting people, but I try not to take it personally.)

Today I worked an event hosted by The Church of Christ, Scientist. It’s not a religion I know much about, and the event was an hour long lecture titled “The Power of Prayer.” I listened to a little of it, and learned some of the history of the Church of Christ Scientist.

While working at these schools, I work in close contact with the custodians. Today I worked with an older gentleman, originally from Vietnam, who struck up a conversation about religion with me (being that we were working at a church event.) He told me about Buddhism, the way his people celebrate holidays and come together at temple. He told me about how close families are in his culture, and how he is sad to see children “running away from home when they are 18” in America. He asked me if my family lived close by, and was happy to hear that I see my parents regularly.

While people were coming into the school before the lecture, a man came in with his dog. The custodian stopped him, and tried to tell him that dogs were not allowed in the school. This man, seeing the Vietnamese custodian talking to him, began speaking in Japanese. The custodian shook is head, and again said that dogs were not allowed.

“Oh, you aren’t Japanese?”

“Sir, you cannot bring a dog in here.”

“Ah. Arigatou Gozaimasu.” And then he left, with his dog.

The custodian, as I mentioned, is originally from Vietnam. And yet this man insisted on speaking Japanese to him, even when he was not answered in kind. What kind of awareness (cultural or otherwise) did this man have? Not much. Was he open to understanding a new experience? Not really, he wanted to make it into something familiar to him – and when it wouldn’t fit that mold, he tried to force it anyway. You know the story of the square peg and the round hole?

I learned things about two groups of people today that I previously had no knowledge of. I am a little more informed, and have a slightly better understanding of two new cultures. Cultural understanding is more than a classroom presentation. Cultural understanding is listening to people tell their stories, gaining understanding of people’s experiences, and using that new knowledge and understanding to see the world through a different lens.

How can we apply that kind of learning to a classroom? How can we teach our students not to force their ideas onto situations where they don’t fit – to find the round peg, instead of forcing the square one where it doesn’t fit?

On testing

24 May

I liked the story Bill Ayers told (in To Teach, 2010) about his son taking a standardized test:

Once, when Malik was telling me about his week of standardized testing, I asked “Did you learn anything from it?” He looked at me with mild disgust. “Bill,” he said patronizingly, “it was a test.” (p 125)

However, Ayers definitely believes we can learn things from standardized tests. Like the bias of those who wrote them. I found this cartoon on Pinterest and was struck by how aptly it applies to Ayers’ disgust for standardized tests.


Singing in the classroom

23 May

One of our readings earlier this quarter described a classroom where the students all sang together. Remember, we don’t have to sing “Twinkle Twinkle” or “Old MacDonald.” We can sing things like Matisyahu, and have amazing classroom moments like this.

My Desk

23 May

Inspired by the video “people and their desks” and by EduSuz, here is a picture of my workspace.

I can’t even call it a desk, because there are five pieces of furniture in the mix here. The black piece is an old vanity, which is theoretically my desk. My computer sits on our dining table because there is no room on my desk (it’s very small, and I am more of an “Einstein” when it comes to my desk. There is a filing cabinet upon which my printer/scanner sits, and behind the table is a bookshelf where I keep all my textbooks, notes, and supplies. The cabinet with photos on top holds most of the equipment that my business partner and I use to make natural beauty products – inside is beeswax, shea butter, and all sorts of fun goodies.

This “desk” space is temporary – in July I will get to move into our second bedroom and pull my actual desk out of storage. I’m excited to have a little more space to spread out.

Sunday I was having brunch with one of my friends, telling her that I felt like I was completely unorganized. She laughed and told me she thinks I seem like one of the most organized people she knows. I guess everyone has a different definition of organization!

Becoming a kind teacher

22 May

On Friday night, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Finding Kind, a documentary about aggression in girls.

We’ve been talking about bullying in class, and I thought the film would add an interesting element to what we’ve discussed, especially in the Middle School Learners course.

But I didn’t expect it to affect me so personally. I had literally blocked out a lot of the bad experiences I had in school, with girls being nice one minute and mean the next. I can think of three separate instances in which I suddenly without any friends because the girls I considered to be my “best friends” had suddenly decided they no longer wanted to be friends. I’m sure I was just as mean to other girls. Exclusion, gossip, name-calling, even physical bullying happen to girls, and it extends into adulthood. Our popular culture enforces it. Magazines scream at us about what female celebrity is fat, which actress is cheating on her husband, and who wore the ugliest dress to the Oscars. Reality TV focuses on women trying to outdo other women, and usually include at least one session of hair pulling/screaming/name calling (slut, whore, bitch, etch…) Our society has made it normal and expected to be a Mean Girl.

In her “Bill of RIghts for Girls” in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2, Mary Blalock says, out of 2600 girls surveyed, 60% of the elementary aged girls said they were happy with themselves, but only 29% of the high school girls surveyed agreed. What happens to young women between elementary and high school to cause such a shift in how we see ourselves? Why are we so mean to each other, when we should be helping each other out?

The book Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman, is an exploration of why teen girls act the way they do, and how parents can help them survive their teen years. As you may know, the book was the basis of the movie Mean Girls. If you haven’t seen this movie, please do. Not only is it hilarious (as it should be, since it was penned by the one and only Tina Fey), it is also a pretty spot-on depiction of “girl world” in high school.

Ms. Wiseman talks about the movie and the book:

She has since re-written the book, including information on how “girl world politics” affect younger girls, and how technology is affecting girl-on-girl bullying. Cyberbullying is becoming more and more of an issue in schools, and no one seems to know how to deal with it.

So, bullying exists. Girl-on-girl bullying is a big problem that doesn’t get as much attention, because it’s usually not physical. However, it can cause lasting harm. What can we, as educators, do about it?

After the screening of Finding Kind, the audience had the opportunity to fill out “Kindness Pledges” in which we could pledge to spread kindness. The audience was about 95% female, with girls as young as 8 or 9. A few women and girls stood up to read their pledges, just as girls and women do in the film, and in the Finding Kind workshops that happen all over the country.

Here’s my kindness pledge:

I pledge to model kindess in my daily life. I pledge to show my students that kindness is always the best policy. I pledge to stop judging other women before getting to know them, and to stop using derogatory words like bitch, slut, and whore. I pledge to be kind to my students, friends, co-workers, colleagues, and even to strangers, because everyone deserves kindness.


Here’s a final clip from Mean Girls, because Tina Fey just says it so well:

(plus, hilarious.)


Becoming a passionate teacher

9 May

Watching the talk given by Ken Robinson really got me thinking about my educational history.

When he said:

Math, science and English language at the top, then the humanities then the arts way down at the bottom. And in the arts there’s always another hierarchy. Art and music are always thought to be more important than drama or dance. There isn’t a school system in the world that teaches dance every day, systematically, to every child, in the way that we require them to learn mathematics… Why is dance such a loser in the system? … People never saw any economic point in it.

I recognized my educational history, and pictured how arts education is always the first to go. I saw a school I once worked at with no art program, so the teachers tried to incorporate art into their classroom lessons.

When Sir Robinson went on to say: “You probably found yourself benignly steered away from things you were good at in school towards things that other people advised you would be more useful to you.” I saw myself, and my experience in high school. I saw my advisor forbidding me to take auto shop because I “needed” more Advanced Placement classes. I saw my teachers faces when I announced I was going to attend an Acting Conservatory program instead of go to Tulane.

Sir Robinson (yes, he’s been knighted) has really inspired me and I’ve been looking into more of his talks, watching this TED talk he gave with a group of friends (I can’t embed it, but it’s a short video)

This led to a pretty interesting discussion – most of the people I watched it with are involved in theatre as performers, writers, designers, or directors. The “Orange juice” was also flowing pretty freely, so people were getting quite passionate. This led to watching a lot of other TED talks, and talking about how education is changing and what needs to happen to foster creativity. Have you heard of TED? It’s a nonprofit group for “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” and they have two annual conferences where they “bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). ” There are a ton of awesome talks on the website, and I hope to incorporate them into my personal learning as well as my teaching.

I’m lucky to have found my own passion, even if it meant flying in the face of everything I was “supposed” to do – go to a good school, major in Western Lit or Business, and become a good little worker with a house in the suburbs. I’m also lucky to have supportive parents, friends, and to have found a community of like-minded people with whom I can have these awesome, random, discussions.

Becoming a teacher who makes a difference

2 May

We’ve been doing all these readings for my classes – how race affects learning; how gender affects learning; how poverty affects learning; how the education system affects learning… combine that with the statistics I’m getting from my Geography of Current Affairs course (approximately 400 million people in the world have malaria, 33% of the population of Swaziland have AIDS, and there are over 14 million AIDS orphans on the continent of Africa, to name a few of the grimmest), and sometimes I feel like “what’s the point?” Or even “I shouldn’t be teaching – I need to be doing something BIG to help the world.”

The man-friend and I have discussed joining the Peace Corps. It tends to be somewhat of a joke – “Can’t find a job? Let’s join the Peace Corps!” “You have to be married to join the Peace Corps together? Gee, mom will be thrilled!” – but there is often more than a hint of reality in those jokes. We are people who like to do things, to help people, and to make a difference. I was in AmeriCorps for two years working with students from all walks of life – but mostly in poverty. He volunteers with unions and social movements and works for a non-profit.

I have to remind myself sometimes that teaching is, in fact, a great way to make a difference. Not in the “If I can only reach one child” sort of way, but in a more realistic, I want to teach ALL my students to love learning kind of way. Because education is the way out of most of life’s hardships. Donna Beegle worked for years to get herself and her children out of poverty, the road wasn’t easy, but she now has her PHD and works to help others out of the poverty cycle.

First Place School, in Seattle, is a school that provides quality education and a stable environment to homeless students, and help to their families. This is an awesome video that I have been watching a lot of recently. It helps remind me that as a teacher, I can make a difference.

So I don’t need to go to Africa or find a cure for AIDS. I can help out right here at home.

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