Monday, June 15, 2015

Vacation Reflections Start with Dear Teacher Thank-You's

Fenway Park in Boston.  Taking a break to reflect and blog.  
Teaching cycle: part memoir, part credo, part polemic, part review, part summary, and always actively questioning what just happened?

All kinds of things happened:  One bold friend and educator counted down the days before her last one as a math teacher.  I went to her Quitting Party and know her passion will transfer and she'll still educate because she's a voice for teachers in Madison, so if you didn't catch the article explaining her experiences this year, you can read it right here.  Others I know are resolved to working in pre-established systems that sharply limit our capacity, and still more are resigned and see education as a rational science driven by standardized data, enhanced by standardized data, dependent on standardized data (read: standardized testing) - which goes against the sheer complexity of individual lives. And still more are apprehensive.  But most educators I know cannot and will not fit an entire school year into a rundown of events and feelings.

Not to get pedantic but it's way more optimistic to reflect on a school year as a learning experience. A previous post I wrote emphasized Eventually's - the idea that I might not ever know when influence or change happens, but if I bank on one student coming back to tell me, then I know that was one.  But to me, one isn't enough; it's never enough.  Because if all I'm doing is influencing one life, then there is something wrong with me and the system.

This year though, the love happened the day I left school when a bundle of thank-you's landed on my desk.  From students and parents.  And not just a few, but many.  And it was just what I needed when I honestly felt I had no bright ideas left, that my best charm and best thinking had run dry.  I'm showing y'all them here not because Kate, Nina, Maggie, Ed and I are such an awesome team but because I want educators to know that differences are not always gonna be big splashes.  In fact, they rarely are.  I'm certain there were very specific things that contributed to a good year of learning (I'll write about them later), but I'm even more convinced it's a few abstract things that got these expressed thanks from our adolescents and their families:

-being critically astute as a team,
-being radical as a team, and
-having a profound obligation to teach social justice - and not just social justice, but one that's restorative and forgiving and healing
-as a team.  

I'm documenting some of the sentiments from students and parents because more than gift cards, chocolate and flowers, thank-you's matter.  More importantly, what they described affirmed and sustained my belief that #hiphopeducation #socialjustice #notjustbeatsandrhymes is worth it.  When things get rough I need to pull these up and remember these small sentiments can and do lead to better teaching.

Here go the Dear Teacher notes, in full and partial texts.

Full text from a student:

In the past two years I have learned more in school than in all my elementary school career.  Integrating L.A. and S.S. really emphasized the point of how a lot of things are interconnected.  The unit we have been doing about poetry has been my favorite unit.  The 1st year in a half you guys taught us to be opinionated and to care about controversial issues, and poetry showed me how to express those opinions. You have been very kind and generous to me over these past two years which I very much appreciate.  You have also been very supportive of me, and a great role model. You always push me to be better and I look at you to see what I will become if I keep going.  You are the best!  

Partial text:

I will always remember how you can be strict and funny at the same time . . . 

Partial text from a student:

You have been one of the best teachers I have ever had!  You taught me many things for example, a lot is two words, what alliteration is, also many "rad" women like you.  You didn't just teach us academics, you taught us about the real world ...

Partial text from parents:

. . . you provided such excellent teaching and strong positive role modeling.  You appreciated her, understood her, and challenged her, while always wrapping her up in your class community. 

. . . Thanks for two great years of teaching.  She has had such a wonderful experience on your team. Your creative teaching, inclusive class "family", focus on rigor and clear care and commitment to your students is exceptional.  

There were others w/similar themes, and several parents told us in-person or through email what we meant to them.  It's probably self-congratulatory to post and write these out, but teachers are so under-valued and the profession is in such danger, that I couldn't let these sentiments go un-noticed, especially because I know teachers received tons of notes just like these and while most will not publicly post like I am, they need to know that I know those thank you's matter to them too. 

I'll end on this high note: What I truly believe makes a difference in teaching young adolescents are these conditions:

-authentic engagement (#relevant #studentcentered #voice #hiphoped #notjustbeatsandrhymes)
-formative and summative assessments (rapid, real time feedback)
-honest communication w/students and families (no sugar coating - give 'em reality, even if it's hard)
-accountability (based on our values and commitment to make a difference)
-looping (two years to track growth and build relationships)
-hard work (it's a given ...)

As a team.  

In other news, I'm in Boston visiting Suzi and today we climbed at Metro Rock. We tried hard, failed, and tried hard again and again.  We had fun!

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