Sunday, April 11, 2010

Land of Nod

Today was one of those days. I thought it would be a quiet day, two classes writing an essay, one class reviewing an essay and thinking about how to rewrite it.  But the moon must be full, the stars aligned, hormones in sync. . . 
The first class bell rings, I distribute the essay prompts, the kids start writing, and then I hear it. Heavy sighing, loud, dramatic girl suffering. I finally call the student aside; then tears, fear, more tears. Bell rings, one down. 
Then the next class bell rings, and the student in the deepest hole is absent (that word we use only in school, never in life). Okay, now it’s a lengthy e-mail to her concerned parent and twenty minutes later, there she is, standing at my door, still wiping sleep out of her eyes. 
The period ends and another girl makes her way to my desk to apologize for her essay and the waterworks start. I find myself saying that she should volunteer somewhere in order to lift her spirits, to help her rise above her feelings. I tell her to put her body where she wants to be and her mind will follow. She repeats the words like a mantra and says she already has ideas about where to start. Crisis averted, maybe. 
Meltdown central today and a lots of time spent counseling and trying not to cry myself.

I should have known the day was off, when I got to work and found that the word of the day was Land of Nod, the mythical land of sleep. 

As a public school teacher, I have spent years taking education classes and attending meetings where I have been taught how to get my kids to participate in vocabulary relay races; where I have been taught how to put up huge, wall-size Post-Its to create “gallery” spaces for my students to stroll along the walls of the room to view one another’s thoughts; where I have been taught “strategies” like “scaffolding” and “backwards planning” and “vertical teaming.” 
You would think I would have a callous on my heart that would prevent these excruciating time-wasters in the Land of Nod from getting to me anymore. After all, I have taught for over twenty years and have NEVER had occasion to use what I have been subjected to in any of these in-services, even though the swag--Post-Its, pens, markers, glue-sticks--have come in handy. It’s really hard to build resistance to nonsense, especially when it seems as if many of those around you swallow it all without question or protest. 
I always leave these sessions in a tizzy, thinking I am not doing my job well, thinking that if I do not employ these strategies the same way these “professionals” (often people who have opted out of the classroom) employ them, I am doing something wrong. I second guess myself and then struggle to get back on track in my own classes. It’s all I can do to remember that I teach a complicated, multifaceted subject to often resistant students. Unlike these in-service presenters, I don't normally face a docile audience with a high BS tolerance.
A refresher on how to teach “Informational Texts” was the gist of today’s mandatory meeting and today’s presenters "shared" a list of “strategies” designed to teach students how to read “informational texts.” If you can get past the phrase “informational text,” you are doing better than I am, but here’s what I saw as the premise for these sessions: students will not want to or know how to read the deadening “texts” that the California standardized tests demand the students read, so give them the same kind of deadening “texts” in class to show the students “how” to read them. Let’s break down the reading into sentences and paragraphs; let’s make them talk in groups about translating and rephrasing these sentences and paragraphs; let’s make them learn vocabulary that is unrelated to anything but these sentences and paragraphs. In sum, and based on my experience in this in-service, the gist was to make reading MORE of a chore than it already is for students reluctant to read. 

Don’t get me wrong. I do see the value of teaching kids how to read any text closely. It’s just that I am wary about the line between making reading accessible--even enjoyable--and reducing it to nothing more than a chore. 

Because I had first mistaken the date of this meeting and I had scheduled parent conferences and a medical appointment, I made the second mistake of asking those in charge the following questions: What if I already do a lot of close-reading work in my classes with texts relevant to the literature I teach, like critical essays, reviews, even grammatical instructions? Do I still have to attend this meeting? Naturally, I was met with a resounding, YES!
Aye, there’s the rub. Just as we teachers are asked to “differentiate,” teach our students based not only on our curriculum but based also on their different learning levels and needs, those in charge never differentiate. But that’s the problem with the entire in-service, professional development philosophy in my district. The district hires teachers who cannot do the job for which they have been hired, and then spends lots of money and time figuring out ways to make whipped cream out of horse manure. The problem is that those who are teaching well are swept up into that effort at great cost to their time and their morale. 
During meetings like this I think too much about the time spent vs the information gained ratio.  I then get to thinking about all the time I sacrifice when I work in the evenings and on weekends. I am reminded that there is simply no good reason for anyone to do more than show up in a district where contracts are disregarded, where pay is diminished at will, where no one really has a voice, but most important, where all teachers are treated as if incompetent and all students treated as if they are stupid. 
And then I think to myself, no wonder there are so many bad teachers--what a cake job for someone who sees it only as a day shift. Why these in-services probably don’t even phase them as much as they give them a chance to appear busy.
Yup, it was meltdown central today, lots of crying and time spent counseling and trying not to cry myself.