I call all my parents at the start of the year, and if they are not there, leave a message including my cell phone. That actually means many of my students have my cell phone, which I do not mind. They all have my school and personal emails, and the ability to contact me through the program we use for registering grades.
All that has become relevant in the past week or so.
I have had a number of students either with panic attacks, or fearing they could not do the work.
I have had parents reach out to me on a number of issues, including one very sweet young lady who just suffered a re-injury that will have a profound effect on her ability to do her schoolwork. Mine was her favorite class, her parents have praised me to the principal, and now we have to work together to try to keep her going forward, even as she will not be able to do all the work - she is medically limited in how much studying she is allowed to do each night.
We have also had our first assessments, and it was clear in AP Econ on Thursday in the first class that I had underestimated the time that would be needed, and a number of students were struggling with the non-multiple choice part of the test.
So we stopped the test for a few minutes and talked. They have the ability to correct their wrong multiple choice answers for 1/2 credit providing they give a proper explanation, so I decided I would score that as a separate grade.
Because this is the first time I am teaching AP Econ, I offered the students the opportunity to self-evaluate the rest of the exam: I would give them the correct answers with explanations, they would examine their work, and decide what they should have known but didn't. After all, this early in the school year the sole purpose of tests should be to provide feedback to both the students and the teacher, and this approach serves that purpose.
But there is a larger issue.
Let me return again to the panic attacks and related.
Too many of my students feel too much stress. I have some taking 6 APs among their 8 courses. I have many who start to feel that because I am asking them to do more than they have had to do in the past - a feeling very prevalent among my 9th graders - that they cannot do it.
So I decided to share something with them.
It began with this picture:
That is a picture taken last Sunday with Joan Borysenko, Ph. D. Some of you might recognize the name, because she is quite well known as a writer / speaker on the mind-body relationship. She became nationally known as such with the publication of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, which has sold over 400,000 copies. Joan was in the DC area to give the principal address honoring the memory and work of Dr. Candace Pert, who died just about one year ago, and who was also very involved with the work.
Yes I call her Joan. After all, I have known her since the freshman mixer between the classes of 1967 at Haverford (me) and Bryn Mawr (her) colleges. Later that year we dated fairly seriously for around 6 weeks.
I shared the picture with my students, talked a bit about Joan's work, especially some of the ideas shared at the symposium - the notion that our "mind" is not in our "brain" but fuctions throughout our body, that what we do with our mind can aversely affect our bodies, and so on. There is now solid science on all of this.
The students and I, in all six of my classes, had something a brief discussion of how tense and worried some of them get.
I then took a few minutes to teach them to sit up with a straight spin, then take a breath in and hold it, then let it out. That if their mind was wandering to focus just on the breath. We did that a few more times.
I then asked them to do a body check - to see how many felt their shoulders relaxed, their jaws unclench, and so on. It was almost all of them.
I then share with them Bernstein's Benchmark, a rule I developed for myself some 30 years ago when still working with computers, and one I have also applied to subordinates. I came about after one too many evenings of debugging computer programs or writing under deadlines were i found myself making stupid mistake after stupid mistake: when I made my 2nd stupid mistake in an hour, or 3rd overall, STOP. Stop right then and there. Don't back up, don't shut down. Just walk away before I did really serious damage.
My suggesting to my students was that if they just weren't "getting" it with school work, sometimes the best thing to do was something else.
In my case it might be playing the piano, cuddling a cat, making myself a cup of coffee - or just sitting down, sitting up, and working on my breath.
While I loved the students I taught last year, I felt as if I was not dedicated enough to them. I certainly was not dedicated enough to being the best teacher I knew how to be.
I have wanted this year to be different.
That, as with all my teaching, has to start with the students.
Thus the breathing.
Thus the decision to let the AP Econ students self-evaluate on part of the assessment.
Thus the fact that I am blogging infrequently, and am now very far from taking a yoga class at least 5 days a week.
That has enabled me to recognize something else, that when I observed it I first checked with other teachers, and then with the students.
Even those students who are clearly gifted and talented, as is the case with all my 9th graders, we find students arriving at our high school not really prepared to function at a high school level, at least, not at a level commensurate with their abilities. They were not challenged in Middle School. They never had to learn how to support an argument, how to take notes, how to learn other than by brute force memorization. They are poorly prepared to restate ideas in their own words.
I could continue the litany.
Please note that it is NOT a complaint about them, but rather an observation of what their schooling has been like with the educational mandates flowing from the last two national administrations.
Some are outright shocked that it is insufficient for my expectations. That was part of the reason for the panic I was seeing.
It is always why I am very straight-forward with them.
It is why I know that at the same time I have to challenge them, I also have to support them while they learn how to learn, how to write, and, yes, even how to speak.
How to speak - they are so inclined to raise their hands, then when called on, to start with "well" or "umm" or some other verbal time and space filler.
I won't let them.
If they have volunteered, they need to be able to express their ideas without such interjections.
For now I focus on the start.
I will also focus on when they do it while speaking.
We make a bit of a joke about it, but they are beginning to respond.
If they forget, they get a 2 minute period where they cannot speak to the class as a whole.
It seems to work.
Similarly, if their answer is not correct, I will make an assessment of student fragility and if not there use questions to try to lead them to self-correct.
There are a few I can tell are not prepared whom if exposed will melt. I do not want them to lose it in front of classmates, so I will pull them aside to remind them of my expectations.
Teaching is much more than the adult at the front of the room reciting and the students recording. That may be lecturing, but by itself it is not teaching, and often is not an effective way for the students to learn.
Some lecturing is necessary.
I happen to be good at it.
It requires far less work on my part.
But since it is not what my students need, I try to limit it.
By Friday nights I am usually wiped out. That is the one night I can truly crash.
I really crashed last night, and barely got up in time to get dressed and go to yoga.
Thus my Saturday morning reflection got postponed.
To now, Saturday evening.
As I look back, while I see areas on which I still want to work, I am not dissatisfied with how I have performed as a teacher.
I have even had time to write some recommendations for former students.
All papers I brought home are now corrected, grades entered into the computer.
I have five hours reserved tomorrow for planning. I will also do yoga for me, and celebrate 40 years together with leaves on the current by going out to dinner.
Heck, I even had some time to watch some soccer today.
I am a teacher.
Even when not with my students I think about them, and about what I need to do to help them.
It is Saturday evening. It is the down time during my week, down time because I am about as far away from being with my students as I get while awake.
So I am slightly bonkers.
I don't mind if you think so.
After all, some might say that I chose in my late 60s to unretire and return to the classroom, driving 45 miles each way so that I can teach in a school that will let me use my best judgment demonstrates that I am bonkers. Why do I want to work so hard?
Because I can.
Because I find meaning in what I do.
What about you?
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