To the Future

I have a horrible sleep schedule. I have a really, very horribly sleep  schedule, and it often results in me lying in bed thinking about my life. These thoughts often go in one of two directions: working in Africa, and high school teaching. If you’ve ever looked at my About page above, you’ll notice that both of these feature as Things I Want to Do with My Life.

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Being in the Classroom

There exists on the Internet a long discussion about MOOCs (mass open online courses) and their role in the university system. As schools turn towards MOOCs to reduce costs (even though that’s not what will happen) and destroy education (it seems pretty clear that will happen), many are discussing what a shift to the online will mean. Reading the latest addition to the debate, by Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry, I really loved his depiction of why a classroom is necessary:

In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).

In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.

Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.

I vigorously agree with what Bady is describing about what happens in a classroom because that is both how I want to teach (and how I tried to teach when I was doing my student teaching) and very much how I learn. Especially as a graduate student, I’m seeing how the seminar-style structure of a course really allows students to explore the topic and find out what everything means. Even in this structure, though, there are wide variations of how that plays out.

At Arizona State I really only had the occasion to take seminar classes a few times. It would have been twice, but my favorite professor continually forced his lecture classes to become seminars, requiring a lot of table shifting before class started and sometimes slow debates in a seminar with a lecture class’ worth of students. And yet, those seminar classes are probably the ones in which I learned the most. I am most confident talking about international justice and human rights, and I have a comfortable understanding of France in WWII and memory after atrocity. It was in those classes and others that I spent most of the time engaged in a long discussion about ideas and events, conversations that spanned weeks and informed my final paper from a number of perspectives. It was in those classrooms that I learned.

But I would hesitate to even tell you some of the courses I took online, lest you think I know about those topics, because I didn’t really learn much about the Vietnam War, piracy in the Caribbean, or special education policies in the classroom. In each of those classes, I was merely given a reading list and a discussion board (respond to the question by Wednesday, respond to two student responses by Friday!) and then some essays. And so, like virtually all of my classmates, Wednesday evening and Friday evening saw a flurry of posts – and Friday’s was almost always somebody opening five tabs, skimming, and responding to the two easiest or most interesting. Nobody would ever go back to engage in actual discussion on the discussion board. Why would you? It’s just an online class.

The only time I really saw people engaging with each other was when the professor of the piracy class asked us to reflect on the characteristics of pirate activity (looting, killing civilians, etc.) with President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you can imagine how that discussion went even if you’ve never taken an online class, so long as you’ve been on the Internet. I say that because it looked like any internet message board discussing a touchy topic – people typing over each other, some sass and sarcasm, some ALL CAPS. There was no facilitation of debate, just a kind of provocative question let loose upon Blackboard. Needless to say, I don’t think anybody learned.

When I was teaching, I was never really able to facilitate a seminar very well. My classes were all made up of almost 40 high school students in a very crowded classroom, and I was usually planning things relatively last minute, so I didn’t have the greatest opportunities to really plan out discussion topics. But I knew my students and they knew me, and most of us trusted each other to do this whole “school” thing. I was able – the same way Bady describes – to really discern what was going on in the room and nurture some of my students’ thoughts. It was great watching students gradually open up and say what they had been pondering all hour long, and it was great to really watch a debate unfold when we talked about the more contentious issues. It was also a lot of fun playing devil’s advocate, because sixteen-year-olds don’t often get asked what they think about politics and they don’t often have people rebutting their opinions on immigration or tax policy. There are a number of times that I really think the class was able to move forward together and grow together. That type of learning really doesn’t happen in online classrooms where many students generally aren’t as engaged. There are some independent learners who excel at online classes, students who just need a reading list and maybe some power points. But there are also a lot who, like me, will learn enough online to get a passing grade, but not really enough to learn.

And yet schools everywhere are pushing towards online. ASU has a huge number of online courses offered, and one school district in the Phoenix area is talking about requiring two online courses for all high school students so that they are “better prepared” for online courses in colleges and for online training in the workplace. Colleges are funneling students into online courses for a lot of introductory classes now, making the foundational knowledge on which the rest of your education a shaky one. Online classes can be done right, and there are students that could benefit. But that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening here is students being forced, either by requirements or by the simply math of more students than there are seats in the remaining classrooms, to take courses that have been created first and foremost to change education for the worse – to make it cheaper, to make it easier to grade, to make it quicker. We need to preserve what’s left of the classroom, and we need to fight to rebuild what’s been lost. Online classes are a dark, looming future, and they’re not the way forwards. Online classes are a move backwards. A step away from education, and a step we shouldn’t keep taking.

Trial By Fire, A Year Later

A year ago last Wednesday, I walked into a suburban high school social studies classroom and started my student teaching experience. Over the next couple of days, I watched a few lectures, gave two lectures, and helped students put together posters. It was a pretty easy few days of observation, and my mentor teacher and I worked out a slow transition in which I would take over the U.S. History classes completely and help out a little in Government. There was also a little bit of drama, and then…

A year ago today, my mentor teacher quit.

From the next day through the rest of the semester, I went through a stressful and wonderful experience of teaching and learning. I have always loved history and government and I have always loved teaching. I don’t think I would’ve made it through without that. But it wasn’t easy – I spent countless evenings planning lessons (much to my wife’s dismay) and dealt with multiple substitutes and administrators. I had a great group of colleagues who were able and willing to help me as the semester went by and I had a couple hundred students that (for the most part) rocked.

I also learned a lot. I learned how to revise and start over – often in the middle of lessons, and pretty much in the middle of every day. I learned how to deal with all of the stuff that students, parents, and administrators throw at you. I was also on TV announcements more in that semester than in four years of high school. These were things that I’ll be carrying with me (well, not that last thing) – I was constantly revising my work with refugees and I’m sure I’ll be working with different parties no matter what I do with my future.

Yesterday I was substituting in a world history class, watching students take notes out of textbooks, and it dawned on me that I might not end up teaching high school students ever again (unless a teacher somewhere gets really sick, really soon). But while it might suck if that’s not in the future, I know that I can go into whatever else knowing that I went through the most ridiculous student teaching ever, and came out all the better for it.

Life as an Academic and a Mentor

This morning there was a really good post by Apini over at PhD Octopus in honor of the end of term at Oxford. Most of the post is about the quick ending of term there, but a lot of it struck a pretty deep chord with me. I’ve always lived by the academic calendar – having just finished my undergrad, I guess that’s not unique – but I’ve always expected to. I keep track of time based on when school starts and stops. My photo albums are arranged by academic year instead of calendar year. Having been somewhere between teacher-track and professor-track in my career aspirations, I’ve pretty much sold myself on living a teaching sort of life. But living by a calendar starting in the fall isn’t that intriguing, this bit of the blog was what hit me:

I remember that there are newspaper deadlines, and orchestra rehearsals, and plays, and JCR committee elections, and important varsity matches, and internship interviews, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  I remember walking through the dining hall in senior week and thinking how sad it was that it would never be ‘my’ dining hall again.  I remember a party on the roof of our house.  I remember the panicked feeling of being nostalgic at the same time that the thing you’re being nostalgic for is happening.

And I remember that another reason I became an academic is because I like to operate on that calendar too.  I like to see successive generations do all of those things, and make decisions about their lives, and make silly mistakes along the way, and grow up from scared first years to confident (and scared) finalists.

This is exactly what I love about teaching. I love history and human rights and development, enough to be a professional historian or researcher or development worker. The only reason I would rather teach is for that interaction with students. I love interacting with pupils and watching them grow, both academically and socially. This year I had the privilege of being with 190 students during my four month stint back at high school.

People don’t always talk about this, but teaching is pretty isolating, at least professionally. There are other teachers in your department and you have the daily prep hour to maybe see the colleagues in your hall. There’s the occasional professional development seminar you can attend. But most of the time you’re the only one of your kind. When I was teaching, I started my day with a prep hour either alone or with a couple of other teachers in vicinity, I (sometimes) spent lunch with the same gang, and I usually spent about an hour, maybe more, alone in my room working after the day ended. The rest of the time, I was alone in the company of 35-40 high schoolers. When you spend hours with your students, you’ve got to enjoy it. I have to say, I truly loved seeing all of my students every day throughout the year, and that last paragraph from Apini reminded me why.

The One with the End of the Year

In an episode of “Friends,” Rachel and Monica deal with the “end of an era” after years of living together. While my situation is decidedly different, I am at a bit of a crossroads. The past week of school has been a mix of review and advice with a healthy dose of conversation and fun. Friday I said farewell to my seniors (although several came back to visit), and finals and Tuesday and Wednesday made up my last days with students. Graduation was last night, and today I had three students make up tests and three more swing by to say hello. My classroom is devoid of, well, anything. It’s an odd feeling.

I have only been in 508 (my room) for four and a half months, but it has been a pretty momentous time period – even if it isn’t an era. In the last week of January I began a slow process of decorating my empty room with maps, activist flags, and drawings. Today I took all of that down. Over the last few months I’ve accrued an odd assortment of student artwork and notes, and today I fit them all in a pile – with two additions today! I also signed off my laptop and returned all of my books. I had a few random moments of “WHY?!” as I trashed old posters and packed away notes, but I also got to see some of my favorite students and hang out with some of the best colleagues – and friends – I could have asked for.

But, where to now? I have absolutely no idea. I applied at the only high school history opening in the East Valley today, and I’ve also applied for some sort of obscure mentorship-in-American-Government thing. Other than that, I’m looking for just about anything. In the meantime I’m also perusing grad school websites and planning out what to do next in regards to redecorating. Hopefully, things will be coming together. Either way, I’m on my way into the next epoch or whatever.

In Which I Return to the Classroom

So, long story short – I’m back in the classroom. For details, keep reading.

After closing up shop at my high school, I went home and got word that my grades had posted. Most of the weekend was a waiting game, but Monday went surprisingly quickly as I began to run errands. I woke up to e-mails from several contacts at ASU about approving my attempt to get an early institutional recommendation (IR). So, without further delay, I grabbed everything I needed and drove on out to the Arizona Department of Education. Once there, I waited in line before submitting several forms, wrote out a check, and walked out with a substitute certificate! From there I drove way back across town to the district office to approve everything before I popped my head into my classroom. From there, I just had to go back to waiting.

I passed time by walking in circles with Alli and having some Starbucks before spending the evening with Kim. That evening I got a call saying that I’d have to wait for eVerify to prove that I’m a citizen. All told, I spent most of Monday zipping across the Valley and most of Tuesday relaxing. It was nice to be productive outside of the classroom, but it was also a much-needed mental health break. But, since then I’ve been back in the classroom and it’s been pretty swell.

Last week was pretty slow – we finished watching some movies while students continued to work on study guides and reviews. This week has just started, but it’s the last week for seniors and we’re rounding the corner with my juniors. I’ve got the next seven business days figured out, but after that I’ve no idea what’s next. All in all it’s been a good few months, so I’m just going to enjoy my last weeks of the school year.

Last Day, maybe.

So, I’m feeling oddly lost. Friday was my last day at the high school – for now. As I mentioned in my last post I’m working on a path to subbing before the semester’s out. But this last week has been an interesting one. Trying to get grades as up to date as possible, I stayed until at least 4 every day I think, and on a lot of days I was able to talk with some of my students after class. Wednesday and Thursday my room was packed with test retakes, questions, and conversations.

And Friday, oh that was quite the day. Before the first bell even rang I had students bringing me things to brighten my day. I really don’t think these kids have any idea how important they are to me. It might have been cookies and balloons to them, but it meant a heck of a lot to me. But then again, I’m a complete sucker for anything sentimental.

Even though Monday hasn’t arrived yet, I feel like I’m missing something. Odds are tomorrow I’ll feel a little weird not getting out of bed at 5.30 or rolling down the 202 by 7. But hopefully I’ll be productive and get Operation Subbing underway. In the meantime, I’m listening to Vampire Weekend and glancing through the yearbook I picked up on Friday. And maybe I’ll eat a frosted cookie.


Going Through the Steps

So, my last official day of student teaching was this past Tuesday. It’s the proverbial end of the road. But I’m looking for ways to make that road a little longer, maybe even into a bridge.

About four months ago, I walked into a seemingly innocent history classroom in an East Valley school. I started semi-teaching right away, and a week later I was full-time: five hours, two classes, one prep, and about one hundred ninety-two students. I went from mentor teacher to substitute teacher to mentor substitute. And it’s been very up-and-down, very back-and-forth. It’s been one of the most stressful, frustrating, and difficult situations I’ve ever been in, but at the same time one of the most fun, most rewarding, and most exciting.

And I want to finish off the year. Virtually everyone has been telling me to bail at the end. It’s too tough of a job to be working for free, it’s too thankless of a job to be volunteering. But my annoyingly bleeding heart wanted to stay just to see the year through with my students. So, I convinced myself to stay the week and work things out. The past week has been full of scrambling, and I have spent a lot of time on my phone and writing e-mails. But, Friday came and went and I’m not going to be teaching until I’m working.

So, Operation Teach Again is already crawling forwards. As of the beginning of the week I was on the cusp of getting emergency certification to teach the rest of the year. But, as the week got started I swung by the district office and with a bit of a hop in my step. My hopes were dashed when I found out that my efforts were in vain: no emergency certification for me. But, before the day was over I was charting course for a substitute certification. For the rest of the week I was making calls to ASU’s Teacher’s College and the Arizona Department of Education, and I’ve drafted a to-do list.

  1. Get my grades to post on my DARS at ASU and contact my academic advisor
  2. Get an institutional recommendation (IR) from the Teacher’s College
  3. Take the IR down to ADE in Phoenix and fill out a substitute certification application. Supposedly I’ll walk out with it the same day.
  4. Take the certification down my the school district office and meet with HR and the sub coordinator.
  5. Start subbing!

Step one is done, and hopefully I’ll be getting my IR on Monday. We’ll see. As soon as I get it I should be able to burn through this list and move forwards. Meanwhile, my mentor/sub is going home to Kentucky this week, so there will be a substitute in the classroom anyways. It’s possible that the sub will be guaranteed the job for the week, so I might have to wait in the wings. Either way, I’m hopeful that I’ll be wheedling my way back into my classroom.

Is it political?

Everyone has opinions. One of the most important things studying history can teach you, I think, is the ability to see other perspectives. Learning about the actions and decisions of others allows you to see things their way. I’ve been able to employ that in the classroom a number of times, especially when discussing current events in Government.

I drew a line. Some teachers do, some don’t, but I decided from the get-go that my opinion would, for the most part, be masked by my teaching. Despite having talked about hyper-controversial issues such as women’s rights to abortion, intervention in Libya, and levying higher taxes on the rich, I’ve maintained a position in the middle – even for the shorter conversations about reducing foreign aid or tuition protests.

But I’m not completely closed off. I’m very open about talking with my students. We’ve also discussed anything and everything. And in these conversations I’ve found a few spots where the line I drew wavers, and I’m not sure if it’s political or not. I have said that Barack Obama is a United States citizen more than once, and I have reprimanded students for using the word “gay” as an insult.

Both of these stances have a hint of liberal in them, but I don’t feel like they are political at all. I believe there is ample proof that our President is qualified for his position, and I think the birther movement’s existence does no good for the country. I think using the word “gay” as an insult is inappropriate since it perpetuates that there is something negative about being homosexual. Those are apolitical opinions to me, they’re about the recognition of facts and a nation’s understanding, better use of semantics and less bullying.

Today was the Day of Silence, a campaign to remain silent in solidarity with and support of GLBTQ youth being harassed and bullied. I participated three times, and I chaired the planning of it in my high school (in actuality, it was a minor job, but one I’m still proud of). I told each and every one of those students today “thank you” and “I’m proud of you.” It wasn’t meant to be political. I don’t think they will, but if anyone tries to say I shouldn’t have done that, I don’t care. Bullying is bullying and it shouldn’t happen.

Moving Forwards

With recent days being really tough, I’m getting sick of all of the stress. I’m going on almost 20 days of alternating insomnia and exhaustion with lots of stress, so I’m trying to somehow resolve to get rid of it. This weekend my mounting to-do list is, well, continuing to mount. That said, I’m try to nix a couple important things, like lessons for the next couple of days and presentations for this week’s class. I’m going to try to get rid of distractions, be more methodical, whatever gets the job done.

On Friday, the day of my observation, I balked a really crappy activity into my classroom. One of my colleagues was able to help me shape it better, and it turned out passable. I have a lot of work to do between my two preps and class/club at ASU, but I’m trying to blaze a trail here. I’m going to keep a log, of lots of stuff, and we’ll see how the week looks when I’m done.

Today, I resolve to get more done while being less stressed. Let’s see how I fare with resolutions.