Saturday, September 21, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: More Things I'd Say to Parents (Part II)

Of the 54 students on my team, about 15 of them probably should have waited a year before enrolling in kindergarten.  Really. All told - a period of 3 weeks with about 45 hours of classroom instruction compounded by the complexity of boys - and I know tons of public educators who teach students from  diverse neighborhoods would be able to say "I feel you Ms. Naputi."  So in the spirit of pre-adolescent boys who do some of the strangest things during class, I'm picking up where I left off and my next item for parents to know is this . . .

#9 Your son should have only the basic supplies for school.  This means a #2 pencil, a simple calculator, and some looseleaf paper.  Anything mechanical is a distraction (he'll take it apart) and anything that is constructed of separate parts should not be purchased (he'll bend, break and reconfigure it).  He can still write words on his basic calculator but at least he will not be fidgety if his paper doesn't have the fringes to remove.  If you can find or make a pencil box out of titanium and cover it in bubble wrap, that'd be awesome - your son can bang on it all he wants and when it inevitably falls to the floor it'll be as inconspicuous as a tiny weed sprouting.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I can avoid petty clashes with a kid who cannot control his impulses. And I'm sorry to harp on the boys, but all of my data points for distractibility aligns with that gender.  It also means that by keeping it simple for your kid, I can actually give positive acknowledgements for meaningful participation and engagement.

#10 I will avoid the -isms.  Sarcasm.  Cynicism.  Pessimism.  Middle school kids have a hard time differentiating these -isms, and adults really should be sensible because often these -isms border on being too much.  True, some are unaffected by sarcasm and there are those who are already cynical and a few who have adopted pessimism way too early in their lives and if this is so, then it can make adolescence even gloomier.

What does this mean for me as a teacher? It means that when I go there, I'll wage that battle with myself to get out of it.  As an educator, cynicism and pessimism are enticing because so many legit reasons exist that lead us to that black hole.  But there's danger there.  And I won't find transformation on that path and isn't that what teaching is all about?

#11 A dress code will be enforced.  Aside from the district dress code policy which I honor to the tee,your child needs to come to school dressed for their job.  This means they cannot wear pajamas or house slippers to my class.  There's just something musty and gross about a student rolling out of bed and coming to school without changing their panties or underwear.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I will dress professionally.  It means that the 6-year tradition of "Team Dress-up Day" on the first Tuesday of every month will continue, and that students who show up dressed-up (most of them do . . . ) will be recognized.  It means that at times my teaching partners and I will plan academic presentation formats to give them a purpose for dressing up, but to also help make the connection that presentation - in various forms whether it's on paper or in-person - makes a difference in how you feel and do.

#12 I will not always get the last word.  Saving face in the midst of a power struggle is a big deal to a kid.  If s/he says "So" or "I don't care" or "Make me," I'm going to think negative thoughts in my head but I'm going to back off.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I can't force a kid to be a student but I can believe in their human-ness and realize that everyone comes from a place of instability.  And really, it means that sometimes having the second to last word is okay.

#13 Your child isn't better than their peers.  When a student rolls their eyeballs at others, sighs heavily or even lightly, refuses to participate, or only wants to work alone or on their terms, it sends off vibes of superiority.  Worse is a gaggle of those profiles in a classroom and even worse is when that air of entitlement hovers over such rich and beautiful diversity.

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I'm going to call out those kids who overtly and covertly judge others.  They probably don't even know how obvious their body language and actions are, so I'll be very specific when I show them what their airs and entitlement look like.  And I might have to be very direct and say some things they haven't ever heard before.  I might also issue a challenge that they form an alliance with someone who comes from a different neighborhood, social class, background, or who differs from them academically.  Because one thing we all have in common is that we all have stories to tell and contrary to perceptions and judgements, some might have similar ones to share.

#14 In a million words or less, tell us about your child.  It's the only parent homework you'll get.  Students are sent home with a blank sheet of paper with the direction, "In a million words or less, tell us about your child." The return-rate is high, and we get a range of responses - from a single paragraph to a 4-page essay, and they come back written in Spanish, typed or hand-written.  Sad to say though, a few come back blank or not at all - the blank one you see in the picture below was from a kid who said, "My mom said she's not gonna do no homework . . . "

What does this mean for me as a teacher?  It means I get to know your child as a son or daughter, sometimes as a foster child, and occasionally as a grandchild.  I get to know them from your eyes and that means a lot to me.  But really, it says a lot about you.  Because underneath the descriptions of your child's talents and gifts, strengths and weaknesses, is the undeniable love and hope that you carry for your kid, and that makes me feel tremendously proud to be their teacher.

After next week it'll be one month since a bunch of parents' kids became students and I continue to look for ways I can practice being a better parent and teacher.  At the same time, Misa and John-Pio are into their own routines of school and play, and - biggest surprise of them all - Emma is coming into her own as a teacher in Kenya, a career path I thought she would never consider, and psyched to hear that she is.

I'm not gonna lie - I'm really tired and I've had a drink every single weeknight which goes against my usual routine, but I've managed regular workouts, some good runs, and a number of good climbing days.  So in the spirit of this blog also being about my favorite thing to do - climb - here's a video Misa took early September when she and I spent time focusing on a few climbing goals.

Climbing from Vera Naputi on Vimeo.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Home and Place: Your Place or Mine?

I love this on-going conversation about Home and Place - it keeps my mind flowing as I learn new ideas and perspectives from others.  In this piece, Todd Mei discusses "place" as it relates to our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, and our future plans.  The challenge is to reflect on "place" as an idea that extends beyond geography and location.  I get this.  In fact, it's one of the reasons I started this blog - to explore personal identity and write narratives about the very questions Todd poses here.  Enjoy this fine tuned piece that gives perspective on how and why people "inhabit" a place.  

Your Place or Mine?
        We tend to think of place in terms of places, or specific geographical locations. But do we ever think of place as a general concept we use to make sense of not only where we are physically but how we see ourselves—our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, our future plans?
         There has been much explored in recent philosophy on the concept of place, with the majority of it discussing how we, particularly in the West, have tended to forget its significance. So what exactly have we forgotten? Typical for philosophy, the answer is not easy to state in a few words. Rarely is it straightforward. But in the short space I have, I think it worthwhile discussing one aspect of what these philosophers of place raise, and that is how place is fundamental to understanding who one is. In a word, they refer to this as “habitation.” Habitation is essentially the way a local community of people dwell in a place according to conventions and customs which take into account relations to the whole of things. This whole includes nature, other people in the same place, other people who are strangers (non-local), a sense of boundary, a sense of what is sacred (and profane), and so on. In this regard, to inhabit a place is to live according to habits deemed appropriate for living with others.
Why is reflecting on place worthwhile? Because I think there are certain pressures in our modern life that encourage us either to forget about this relation to place—and therefore to forget about the fundamental way we come to understand ourselves—or to ignore place in our everyday routines. I will mention one example of this in closing.
                  If it is true, as I said at the outset, that we primarily think of place in terms of geographical locations, then the common way of thinking of oneself as “coming from” a place seems a bit odd. We do not merely come from a geographical place: “I am from Orange, California.” Rather, it seems fairer to say that in speaking of a place of origin, one is referring not just to geography but a specific kind of lifestyle, culture, or . . . habitation. Perhaps this seems a truism. I would not deny this, but what is obviously true in one sense may still have much significance which is not so obvious. What might be hidden in this respect is how a specific place forms our relation to everything else. Buildings and scapes are the most explicit expression of place. Consider how a cityscape dominated by the car often results in a place not intended for the pedestrian. Where I grew up, the local hills were steep, yet access to these hills was primarily by car and not foot or even bicycle. So instead of having gradual switchbacks, the roads shot straight up the hillside. What kind of customs and habits develop from such cityscapes? And are these profoundly different from, say, the European-styled city in which a car is not only not necessary but largely a nuisance?
                  I think we often try to explain such differences in terms of cultural relativity—London is culturally different from Los Angeles. I am not dismissing this explanation, but what I want to show is that such differences are not due to varying cultures but rather how cultures vary because of the way they are tied fundamentally to the way their place of origin is inhabited, in the sense I mentioned earlier. Take for instance the practice of the ownership of property. It is a “habit” (or convention) that is specific to and determined by place. Nomadic tribes often have no sense of private property of land in perpetuity, and where one finds conventions of ownership in the customs of indigenous people, they are often qualified by a specific ethical relation to nature and to other people meant to curb or prevent the kinds of oligopolies common today.
                  So even if what I have described is a truism, I still think one can ask whether or not we notice this relation to place actively when we go about our day-to-day lives and especially when we go to foreign places.
I want now to turn to an example of how we tend to forget this relation, and though it may smack of technophobia, I do not intend it as a criticism of technology. Given the use of mobile communication devices, we tend to reduce place to an intermediate location “on the way” to somewhere else. We text on trains, in cars, while walking, even while talking to others. So while such devices facilitate communication in remarkable ways, this facilitation encourages the forgetting of place—of where we are in that moment when we use those devices. “This” street is now any street; it is any street because it is merely a length of asphalt and concrete on which I can text a friend. It is well known that other types of technology encourage this type of forgetting, as when a Sat Nav enables us to get to a destination but without any real, conscious awareness of how we do so on the physical land, that is, through places.
                  But maybe this is all trivial compared to what seems to really matter to us? Perhaps it is, but of course it may only seem so because we have little regard for place. One of the consequences of this lack of regard may be an inability to think of relations with outsiders in a more hospitable way. Place might then become the locus through which I can greet another person, make myself available to him or her. My own sense is that this would add a very human dimension to what we term multicultural relations. Of course, this is easier said than done. But at the same time, such saying is not empty. For something to be possible, it must also be said since this saying is an essential way of inhabiting place.

Todd Mei is an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.  He climbs and windsurfs occasionally, has a penchant for bourbon and gin martinis, and endeavors to keep one-finger, one arm pull ups as a staple of his maintenance workouts.  Check out Todd's other piece on this blog:  "Stereotypes and Race: China is Here." 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Connections to Professional Life: Get Your Professional Sh*t Together

If there's one thing I appreciate, it's on the spot commentaries.  Spontaneous writing assigned in a collaborative setting where you have to share can produce the hidden voice, the one that tells the things you were thinking but never said out loud.  That's what happened at one of my district in-service trainings earlier this summer with my long-time teaching partner, Kate Jorgensen.  Our assignment was to write a commentary on a specific issue for a specific audience that ended with some kind of advice.  And we had 15 minutes to do it, which Kate wrote in 5.  Here's Kate's quick-write on a topic with real advice that has benefited new and developing teachers, from volunteers and tutors to practicum and student teachers.  Direct and straight-up, I laughed out loud as I reflected on aspects of my years as a beginning teacher . . . Enjoy this! 

As Ms. Naputi says, "It's not personal, it's just business."  Many teachers I know don't see students behavior this way because the truth is that it is personal.  It's personal when you see a new teacher crying in front of her students because an 11-year-old tells the teacher to f**k off, or the cute 13-year-old kid shows up 15 minutes tardy to your class, or a kid says, "This is boring."  It's personal because the developing teacher makes it so.

So how can middle school teachers demand respect and have students learn?  The key is high academic and behavioral expectations for adolescents.  The key is to stop being so afraid of your students: they are only kids!  Get your professional shit together and stop taking it personally!

My advice is to establish clear expectations with reasonable consequences and have consistent follow through.  Don't threaten something, then back down.  You are then weak and telling students you expect bad behavior.  Students in adolescent years need structure and they need to know that you say what you mean and you mean what you say.  True, there is a delicate balance in being strict, humorous, and loving.  But don't give up and just become friends with the students thinking this will soften the problems in your class.

The other key piece is academic engagement. Develop meaningful and rigorous curriculum and tell your students "learning is non-negotiable."  Every instructional thing you do should have a purpose and intent.  Otherwise, why are you doing it?  Engaging content can work wonders for solving behavioral problems.

Now, I'm in a unique position because the model at Sherman Middle School is one that loops 6-7th grade, is fully inclusive, and involves teaming.  This means that most educators have their students for 2 years and there are 3-person teams so you have adult support.  Many educators teach in a junior high model in which they have sections of math with 30 kids each.  That's unfortunate, but it doesn't mean the students should run wild.

Might I sound to be too controlling - like kids trapped in a Catholic school?

Maybe, but it's better than students telling you you're a fat, stupid bitch, isn't it?  March forward and start high expectations early.  Put your ego and need to be liked on the shelf and let students know it's important for them to learn.


Kate Jorgensen - Lover of family (especially her nieces), friends, running, outdoors, music, educating middle school students. and all things social and political.  Kate also wrote Seeding Professional Development for this blog - check it out.