Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ten Things Tuesday: Unique Teaching

I am an unusual teacher, and I teach in an unusual school. Here are ten (and not the only ten) things that set me apart from the mainstream members of my profession:

1. I go by my first name. Although some of my earliest alumni from my time in traditional public school still refer to me as “Mr. Wayfarer”, I am much happier being able to go by my first name. It matches my informal and disinvolto professional style, and encourages students to get to know me as a person, not just as a teacher.

2. I get, and give, a lot of hugs. This is a celebrated element of the rather bohemian culture of my school, and I very much enjoy the closeness it creates between individuals. Particularly at the high school level where everyone is hypersensitive to physical touch, to see someone in the hall, say, “Hi!” and exchange a friendly embrace just makes everyone's day go a little better. High fives are also incredibly common.

3. I don’t grade homework. This is one of the elements of the system I’m piloting this year. The decision to do this came from an epiphany I had during the summer. In a nutshell, it started from the question of what a grade is supposed to quantify. For teachers, it usually measures a student’s ability to do and know, but often there’s a whole lot of other stuff that ends up part of the equation--timeliness, class participation and neatness of work, to name some. Most people who aren’t teachers, though, look at a grade much more simply. Is the student doing well? What do they know? What can they do? Synthesizing lots of things into a single grade really muddies the water when trying to communicate clearly about a student’s progress and performance, so I started looking for ways to make it clearer. One of the things I realized was that I was counting homework as part of their overall grade, when I really only assign homework to be practice. What is the value in doing that? At best, it forces work on a student who is overloaded and who needs different support. At worst, it hides a demonstration of perfectly good skills behind a failure to do “busy work”. Once I realized I might be able to help students better by looking at their grade as a function of skills instead of assignments, it made sense to let go the grading of anything that wasn’t a summative assessment of what they knew or could do. I’ll let you know how this change in philosophy pans out, but the early returns seem positive.

4. I tell my students to solve their own problems. You don’t have a pencil? Your notebook? A clue? Don’t ask me. I’m in charge of the cosmic, celestial parts of what goes on in the classroom, and that takes up a lot of my life. I don’t have time or energy to worry about, let alone address, your own material inadequacies. Someone, somewhere has a pencil, a copy of your worksheet for you to use, some sense of what’s going on. Ask them. Use your proletarian resources to the fullest before seeking the ethereal ones. Now, if you have a problem that is celestial in nature, you should bring that to me first. Do not suffer in silence on matters of importance. Just take a minute to think about what is and is not something that needs my attention.

5. I have an “official sniveling stance”. I will have someone pose for it later this week, so you can see it. If you want to snivel in my space, you are required to adopt the official sniveling stance. No snivels will be entertained if you are not adopting the stance. This rule accounts for a near 90% reduction in sniveling and related complaints in my classroom.

6. I use muppets and personalities in my classes. Mbungo, Isabela, Flora, Rita, Eldrin and Jesus are all part of a cast of characters in an ever-growing collection of skits and stories that relate to what I teach. I’m realizing as I write this that I don’t have pics of them all to share right now, but I’ll work on it. Not all my students respond to them in person (it’s interesting to see who will interact with a muppet and who won’t), but once they’ve learned a little about each of them, reading and hearing about them in stories seems to help them engage better.

7. I let my students listen to music when they’re studying or taking tests. There are certain people who simply focus better by having music playing. I am not one of them, really, but my classes are chock full of students who are. If it produces better learning, I’m all for it. Related to this, if they’re kinesthetic learners and need to move around to study, I tell them to take a walk and come back in a few minutes and show me that they’ve learned what they need to (this works well for vocab memorization).

8. I give my home number to my students. Believe it or not, I’ve never had this abused in 12 years of teaching. Most of my students are actually afraid to call me! Maybe it’s because I make them do it as part of one of their exams?

9. I wear jeans and sweatshirts to school. In my first year of teaching high school, I wore shirts and ties and good pants. Then I realized that nobody cared if I didn’t. I wear such things now only twice a year: Open House and graduation. This year, I didn’t even wear them for Open House because we had a soccer game that afternoon and I didn’t have time. I apologized to the parents. They were forgiving. We won the game, after all.

10. I keep in touch with my students long (in many cases, years) after they leave my classroom. The alumni from my early years are in their mid to late twenties now. Several are married and have children. Some are off on adventures. Others are quite happy to never have left home. I love all of them so much, and I am honored that they come by as often as they do to share their happenings with me and my family. For me, teaching is first about forming quality relationships. High school is so forgotten about once it’s done and, with it, any connection to the mentors that helped us through that turbulent time. Those are important relationships, and learning how to nurture important relationships is so much more valuable than anything else I can teach. It makes me smile that so many of my students know this, and pass it on to others. Thanks, y’all! You make me so proud!

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