December 4, 2010

Setting my Hair on Fire and other Fun Stories

READ THIS BOOK. Really. I mean it. READ it. 

Sometimes a book captures you, draws you in and makes you want to read and only read. Eating, sleeping and other necessities become less important. Talking to real people seems less real than the characters that have come to life in your head. Harry Potter was the first book/series that did this for me. I didn't just read those books, I devoured them. I ate them up like chocolate- it sure didn't last very long but the experience was absolutely wonderful. When I was finished, all I wanted was more. Life seemed a little less exciting when there wasn't another Harry Potter book to wait for. I watch every day, with a tight throat and happy smile, my students get into books like these (see the end of this post if you want some recommendations) and I remember the sensation of never wanting the story to end but being desperate to know what happens. Some loose sight of the world, completely immersed in a story that seems to be written just for them. These are the moments that I can feel confident I'm looking at a life-long reader.

Then there are some books that are too powerful and packed too tight with knowledge to read in one sitting. Dense and heavy, the vocabulary stretches your brain, the images and thoughts make you think too much to concentrate on the words. When I read these sort of books, all I want to do is talk to somebody, to tell them the ideas that are making my mind go in every direction, reflecting on and analyzing my own life. The book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, is one of these books. Instead of creating its own world, it expands the real one. This book makes our world a better and brighter place because it gives me hope and SO many ideas for teaching. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a book that captures so well the way I think about education and children. Books like these are as special as the ones that I devour in one sitting, but as I have moved into adulthood, I appreciate a novel that can help me become a better person, not just take me into a different existence for a time. It's always lovely to escape every once in a while, don't get me wrong, but I feel awake when I read this book. Awake, ready, and excited to go into my classroom and change things for the better.

For those of you who have never heard of this book before, it is written by Rafe Esquith, a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles. Besides the fact that he has taught for over 24 years in one of the worst school districts in our nation, and besides the numerous awards this man has received, I respect this teacher for the way he writes about children. There is a deep respect and love for his students, and a faith that they will rise to the high expectations he sets. He is right. For example, I love the environment he describes for his classroom- a classroom built on trust, not fear. The idea is simple- there must be a strong relationship between the student and the teacher before true learning and effort can happen. I can tell my students to do something, and they will do it because they're lovely, but to get them to want to do it...oh, there's the icing, sugar and everything sweet. It's important that they want to do it for themselves, not to impress me, because that will only last a year. I want the lessons I teach to last a life time. It wasn't until I read this book that I realized the key to life-long lessons is trust. I work my butt off for them, I stand as an example, I show the way, for they are children, and need to be shown what goodness and hard work and patience look like. I serve as someone they can trust, and I show them that I trust them. They have to earn it, trust can be lost, but the fact that it's there, without fear, well that's what will get a child to work hard and get smart. It's seems like such a simple idea, but in fact it is SOOOOO hard. And some teachers just don't think this is the kind of classroom we should be working for.

So many teachers yell for seven hours a day, five days a week, and then rest their voices on our holidays so they don't go hoarse. They think a classroom that is quiet is a well run classroom. All child-like behavior must be tamed. The textbook must be followed. (Not bad in certain situations, but very bad if seen as the be-all end-all of classroom management) The administrators and district office people who come into our rooms to observe and dissect also work on the underlying philosophy of fear and threats. If management is not in control, then your job is at stake. If your test scores are not going up, then your school will be closed. If you don't follow every contradictory district policy that comes through the line then something bad will out! I always go tense when an adult is in the room, my feeling of comfort and confidence gone because they are watching my every move, looking for things that are wrong. I am not afraid to stand in front of 28 brutal, lawyer-like, loop hole finding, squirmy, stinky 12 year olds, but one of my peers is enough to make me stutter.
Esquith compares the school district to the 'Ministry of Truth' from the novel 1984. This comparison is PERFECT, and his descriptions of this teacher-torture are too good to not pass on. Here you go:
"It is 2:00 pm on a Tuesday, which means I am about to endure from one to two hours of torture. No, not thumbscrews and the rack- worse. It is time for the weekly staff meeting. I have struggled for years to convey to outsiders just how horrible these sessions are. Recently, a fellow teacher and friend helped me make the nature of our meetings understandable to others. He is battling cancer, and his chemotherapy treatments take place each Tuesday after the meeting. He told me he looks forward to chemotherapy because, he says, after the meeting , 'the worst is over!'"
It's not just the staff meetings. Some of you who work in businesses that have to actually produce a product that makes sense will wonder how the school system has survived this long. Last year we were actually told NOT to teach grammar, spelling or parts of speech (pretty much writing). Focus on reading, only reading. Our students were then expected to write essays on the standardized tests. This year, with our writing scores at a new low, the powers that be had the audacity to blame it on us for not teaching writing. Rafe Esquith's comparison to the Ministry of Truth gets closer to reality all the time. "No, we have never been at war with Oceania..."
Sometimes, its hard to decide who to listen to when I choose what to teach. My background- the way I was taught? The school district that keeps changing its mind? The principal, who's job is on the line and who controls whether I have a job or not? The testing data (if and when it actually comes and assuming the test was well written and scored correctly)? The other teachers at my school? How could I (or any other teacher trying to do a good job) possibly be consistent with all these voices telling us to go in so many different directions?
The school district and the government standards do have a point. Every school-wide policy was at first a good idea. Making it a blanket requirement for everyone is where it goes wrong. Teachers are as unique as the students we teach, and I know at least I need to be able to bring my creativity into the classroom or I get extremely cranky. In regards to the current of fear that pushes and pulls us all, threats get the short-term job done. Knowing someone is watching and that there will be consequences does help people work when they just want to float. Some teachers (myself included at times) need that extra push to go the extra mile. But...oh, but...if I get that uncomfortable every time a boss person comes into the room, imagine what the children feel everyday with these adults staring at them, yelling at them, punishing and disciplining them. I hate being watched. I hate being told I'm wrong or receiving criticism. Some people teach like that. No wonder some kids hate school. I want my kids to love school (and hey, my two classes are the only ones with consistent perfect attendance! Yeah for us!) and want to come. I want my love of everything to be passed on to them. Trust is the key. And this book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, is going to take me there.

In the mood to devour a good book? Here are some of my favorites.
ANYTHING by Rick Riordan, especially these three:
Percy Jackson and the Olympians- Excellent series of five books that follows "Half-bloods," or young heroes with one Greek god for a parent. It really brings Greek mythology into the modern world. Literally. While written for children, it is an exhilarating, fun, and fast read for adults as well.  
Heroes of Olympus- The continuation of the Percy Jackson series (only one book has been written so far) that starts off exciting and never stops. I think this was the best one Rick Riordan has written so far. I recommend reading the Percy Jackson series first because this one gives important plot details away from that series.
The Kane Chronicles- Similar to the series above, only this time with magic and Egyptian gods. This series follows the descendants of Egyptian sorcerers and Pharaohs who kept the Egyptian gods in check, and guess what? They're waking up again. Only one book has been written so far, but it's worth getting into early!
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was actually written for adults originally. There are five books so far, each a different color and they follow the entries of a kid who has just entered the wild jungle that is middle school. A laugh a page, guaranteed.

Read Everyday!

1 comment:

  1. Oh Jessie, you make me smile. Keep up the good work.