Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Do We Always Cry in This Class (or, The Affective Domain)?

The "affective domain", of course, is the clinical, detached and sanitized language we use to refer to FEELINGS and EMOTIONS in the classroom. Ironically, many of us English teacher types work daily to provide our kids with examples of language that has life, voice and power. It's interesting, then, that we used (use?) the lifeless phrase "the affective domain" to talk about emotion and its role in learning.

This struck me the other day when my students were sharing, as I invite them to daily, from their journals. Reality being what it is in the Detention Center, kids come and go without warning or notice. One young woman who has come such a long way simply disappeared today. I filled out her transfer form with a sigh, hoping that someone "downstate" (as the kids call it) will have the eye out for her that we have here. Several of the other girls in the unit wrote about her sudden departure, and the tears flowed. Mine included, I don't mind sharing. One of the girls, sniffling and laughing at the same time, asked "why someone always cries at least once a week in this class?" An answer came from one of the Detention Staff that it's because the classroom is a safe space where students can share what's really on their minds. I agree, and I think that's the magic of these journals. It makes THEM the curriculum; it also allows them to write in a space that will not be judged or graded. Hence they can practice without penalty, just like one would with any other skill. (I can't imagine learning piano as if it were a recital every time I sat down to play.)

CS Lewis once said that we "read to know we're not alone." We write for the same reason. We write to connect and be heard. Vygotsky noted time and again that writing should be taught for the natural-as-breathing survival skill that it is. Allowing and in fact creating space for "the affective domain", that is EMOTIONS, in the classroom, honors the power of language.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Telling Our Story

It's a common observation (complaint, really) that teaching can be a very isolating, atomized profession. So it was a pleasure this morning to spend about 30 minutes chatting with my principal and our social studies teacher, as the three of us were free at the same time.

This does not occur outside of rushed staff meetings in "regular" schools. We currently have some extra time on our hands (very much needed "extra" time) since Units 1 and 4 are combined. This is one of the reasons I have been able to bring in guests and such--the very "extras" which bring a curriculum to life. Anyway, we shared about students and some of the ideas we have to problem solve regarding finding resources, transitioning kids back to their home schools and so on. One result of such "chats" is that my colleague has probably identified a donor for laptops for each kid! I cannot overstate how exciting this is (I had to pry my girls off the laptops and away from their Freedom Writers Diary final essays today).

Teachers need to tell their story--first to each other and then to the public, who tends to think it knows what teaching must be like whether or not this is true. These productive conversations need to be firstly recognized as such and secondly prioritized, in my view, by educational leaders. What might this look like in implementation? For one, let's carve out real time for teachers to collaborate. Yes, this probably will mean a lighter teaching load. That in turn means we need more schools and more teachers, and that will likely mean more funding (unless a particular state our country is especially nontransparent or wasteful of their resources). I would also challenge us (not sure who I mean by "us" really) to think along the lines of how we literally design the building of high schools! That is, schools should include a SPACE for productive collaboration and research. I fear we are in the 21st century building on and tinkering with an industrial era 18th century model. This is one of the major reasons why I don't think we can "get there from here."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

We Just Met a Girl Named Maria

With support from my principal, other staff and community members who want to see better futures for local kids, the students of Room 5C yesterday received a visit from one Ms. Maria Reyes, Freedom Writer. If you have seen the movie, she's the one the character of Eva was based on. Jumped into a Latino gang before she was even 10, Maria became "third generation", meaning both her father and grandfather were in the same gang, believing it was what was necessary to protect and provide for their families. As she puts it, she was raised "a warrior". Otherwise, there might not be heat or food in the house. (Folks like David Brooks, who seem to think poverty in America means not being able to afford the newest Air Jordans, might do well to take note.)

To prepare for her visit, we spent the day prior making a welcome banner and generating a list of questions the kids wanted to ask her. Most of them wanted to know how she left the gang (after all, it's not like they just let you walk away) and how she found the courage to tell the truth on the witness stand and admit it was her friend and fellow gang member who had shot a bystander one night in a convenience store, not the rival gang kid who had actually been charged with the murder. That was the beginning of the end of her gang association, and ever since, she's reached out to kids who have been struggling with similar issues. To answer their question, she said that "when you know better, you choose better." She related the courage she found on the witness stand to risk her life by telling the truth to the power of education, specifically to the power of words and writing to help you find your own voice. Once education had helped her find her own voice, she said, it wasn't so hard to do "the right thing just because it was the right thing to do". (I loved that Maria was quoting Miep Gies here, the woman who risked her life to shelter Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust.) My students had all written her letters asking her to comee, and she made a point of telling the kids that it was those letters that convinced her to make time for us. An audience for a young writer can hardly get more real!

Maria is warm and passionate in person, and she directly challenged my kids to not blame others for the choices they've made. That, I think, is the beginning of freedom. My favorite moment was when one of my students responded to Maria by saying that was being a "true warrior". If there is such a thing as "assessing" peace education, that's what it looks like. She'd truly internalized what Maria was trying to say.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Are Grades...Peaceful?

So this question has been asked by so many teachers in so many ways, and I found myself facing it again last Tuesday as I tallied up participation and class assignments and essays. Few people will argue anymore that evaluating especially writing or, say, a student's response to a novel or poem is anything but subjective. (Surely they don't still exist?)

Montessori, Freire and so many others eshew grades totally. I hear them! What do they really, honestly tell us? It's a snapshot, at best, of whether or not a kid is thinking critically and creatively and growing as a reader, writer and human being. And of course, grades force teachers into such dilemmas as what to do with the kid who has started at "zero" and made considerable progress, but might not still technically be up to what the State has decided upon as a standard?

It's not like positive, practical (yes, practical) alternatives do not exist. In my view, Montessori's model of narrative evaluation is solid. I say solid, I mean revolutionary. That is, the teacher observes the kid and his or her work and composes a paragraph or so on the student's behavior and scholastic work let's say weekly. Each quarter or semester, parents, the student and the teacher could then sit down and discuss. What a rich record of the kids' growth this would be! No hierarchy or abstractions needed. And yes, it IS possible, if we were to rethink our schools. Why have we not cut class sizes in half yet? That's a start. Yes, it will mean more teachers and more schools themselves, but that's a mere matter of funding our schools like we think they mean as much as we say we do.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Don't Go It Alone

Rule #1 of really trying to reach your students: don't go it alone.

Rule #2: If in doubt, refer to Rule #1.

I was reminded of the importance of seeking support from parents, volunteers or others in the community today. I've been trying to nail down plans for Maria, one of the original Freedom Writers, to come visit my class now that we've finished the book. I want the kids to see someone who empowered herself through writing and "came out the other side" of the violence and hatred that marrs so many of their lives. As things began to unravel when the date of her visit approached, I found myself looking at having to foot the $400 myself. As I'd put the ball in motion, I was willing to do so, but not looking forward to it.

So, I rallied the troops and called my Angel Parent. Her son was once here at the Detention Center, so she truly gets it. Within a few hours, she had made a number of emails and phone calls to various faith groups who work with both youth and prision ministries. By the time I had finished lunch, she'd found the funding. Not only that, but our beloved funders are interested in a meeting to better understand our long term needs! SCORE!

As a teacher, it's so easy to become isolated in your classroom. But if we want rich, relevant curriculum that is impacting the lives our students, connections to the community should be the norm, not the exception.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Behold the Power of Chocolate

Yesterday of course was Halloween, and so I took the opportunity to hold a "special" freewriting. Usually the rules of freewriting are that there are no rules. As long as things are basically, tolerably school appropriate (I suggest to my kids that the Freedom Writer's Diary is a good guide), the topic is wide open. Yesterday, though, I met my kids with Reese Pieces Butter Cup and the Five Senses--sight, sound, touch, smell and TASTE. The idea was that we went through each sense, to build vivid description in our writing. Even in this quick exercise, I was delighted by some of the results. One ESL student, who is always game to try but struggles with standard ESL issues, wrote that the sound of chocolate "makes your ears perk up like a dog who hears his master". Another wrote that "When you first eat a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, it is like your away on a vacation all by yourself sitting in a hot tub spring...it tastes like the world has stopped for you." One of my girls, a naturally gifted writer, said the sound of chocolate was the "sounds of screaming children craving more".

I loved it and will work to find more devices like this to bring out the fun and creativity they naturally have. When encouraged to think in terms beyond just description in terms of sight, the images began to shine.

And hey, maybe if I write Reese's, they'll sponsor us! Bring on the laptops for EACH KID!