Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sun Belt Summer 2007

Since 1989 I have been a member of the Sun Belt Writing Project which is based at Auburn University in Alabama. I still remember my first summer institute. It was the summer after my second year of teaching and I was desperately looking for some way to become a better teacher. My first two years didn’t go well.

That summer I was introduced to the (then) new ideas of Nancie Atwell in her book In the Middle. I devoured Clearing the Way by Tom Romano, a book that showed me many practical applications of Atwell’s ideas. A book that is still relevant today. I was entranced by the simple advice of Natalie Goldberg to just write in Writing Down the Bones. This is another book that is a must read even still today.

I went back to my classroom and was determined to go with the workshop approach 100%. It was my tenure year, but I really didn’t care. That wasn’t bravery or zeal, I was young and figured if I lost that job I could always find another one. In fact, it might have been a motivator for me to move and go somewhere else.

We had new textbooks that year, replacing the books I had been furnished the first two (those books had been titled Modern English In Action—or was it--more aptly--Inaction?). I assigned the new books to my students. Had them write their names in them, in ink, as I was instructed to do. I then collected the books, put them in my closet and left them there the rest of the year. I had a 100% turn-in rate for books that year, not a single one was lost.

I was very lucky to work under a principal who trusted what I was doing and was strong enough in my district that I got tenure. He let me try the new method. All he wanted was for me to explain it to him so that he could explain it to the parents who called him with questions. Ah, the good old days.

I went back in 1991 as a senior fellow at my site. Basically, I wanted to hang around and they let me. I did it again in 1993 and 1995. I think I worked with the site again in 1997 or 1998, but I am a little hazy there. In 1999 I helped to keep the site alive when it hit a really low ebb. I have been there ever since. Somewhere along the way I started getting paid to do so. Now I am the Technical Liaison for my project. It means I like the techie stuff. Like blogs.

Some people, like my lovely wife, wonder why I do this every summer. Why do I make the drive to Auburn every day for four weeks (it was five until this year)? It is 40-45 minutes each way. And there is a time change involved, also. So I never really get to be on an even keel for the whole time I’m there.

I do it because it is a way for me to keep up with what is going on in the current research on writing and reading instruction. I do it because it is an opportunity to write. I do it because I have good friends there, the kind of friends that are more like family to me. And every summer I get to meet 10-15 incredible teachers. And this summer was no exception.

The amount of talent in the room was unbelievable. The conversations were zany at times and always interesting and informative. The teaching demonstrations were outstanding. The level of caring and commitment was off the charts. These people were the cream of the crop. And I am proud that I got to work with them and learn from them this summer.

But now it is over and the post-Sun Belt blues are kicking in. Tomorrow I will go and finish cleaning out the room. Then there is the report for the year. And then nothing.

As I live in a different city than almost all the participants of Sun Belt, I am now pretty much going to be cut off from all these wonderful people.

At least I am now in a school where I don’t have to be the lone stranger in the English department. In my old school no one ever wanted to go spend a summer at Sun Belt. Well, one person, but she went to a different school after her Sun Belt summer. Where I teach now there are several Sun Belt TC’s (Teacher Consultants). It makes the day a little less lonely.

But the TC’s from this summer are pretty much all Auburn folks. Except for one lady from Prattville and another from Guntersville. For those of you not familiar with Alabama geography, those places are a long way off from here. And I am back in Phenix City.

To any of the TC’s who may read this. Thanks for the great summer. I appreciate all the hard work you put in. And I really appreciate all the new ideas I get to take back to my classroom this year. Mostly I appreciate the warmth and good humor you all shared with me this summer. I hope that you all have your best year ever this year and every year after that, as well.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Book Review: The Garden at Night

The Garden at Night: Burnout & Breakdown in the Teaching Life by Mary Rose O’Reilley

This book takes a look at the spiritual side of burnout and breakdown. As her experience is as a college teacher, this is where O’Reilley focuses her essays, but there are applicable lessons for teachers of all levels.

One of the strongest lessons is that everyone undergoes a “dark night of the soul.” It is not unusual, nor should it be unanticipated. Not that these facts make it any easier to endure, as she herself acknowledges. She does advise that we look for the lesson in these situations, to see what we can learn from them. And that, sometimes, that lesson is that it is time to find a different profession.

O’Reilley also emphasizes the need for teachers to take time to meditate or pray daily. She discusses the spiritual traditions of Christianity and Zen Buddhism. These are not mutually exclusive. Both ask that practitioners take that time out of their lives to focus on something besides the problems constantly besieging them. The importance of taking time for one’s self is an important part, perhaps the most important part, of avoiding a burnout—or at least putting it off.

This is an extremely interesting book that takes a look at burnout from a different perspective than others I have read. The practical applications are from a different direction. The philosophical stance is accessible and attainable. This is one I will need to reread to gain the full impact of, but it has already broadened my thinking on the topic of burnout.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Thoughts on the Fourth

I know that this is going to sound a little weird, initially, as an Independence Day post, but I want to write a little today about a subject left out of the misnamed No Child Left Behind law that I feel is appropriately addressed on this day.

Independence Day is a celebration of our American ideals. The ideals that our country was founded on. As they are ideals, they are not always reached. Sometimes as a people we fall short. But, as we are all only human, it isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that after 231 years, we still, as a people, aspire to reach to these ideals. I am incredibly proud of that.

But what, you may rightly ask, has this got to do with NCLB?

Perhaps I am a little conspiracy-minded at times, but I am puzzled as to one subject that is quietly left out of NCLB. We all know it calls for math and reading tests. I will leave the questionable efficacy of this excessive testing for another post. I will leave the questionable methods advocated by many on the right for teaching reading to another post, as well. Math and reading were the initial subjects targeted by this law. Next science was to be added to the mix. And these three subjects would be what those who wrote the law wanted to see improved.

What’s missing? Social studies. The study of history. The study of government. Why would this subject be ignored by the law? Why would the study of our country’s history not be something that the people who wrote this law feel important enough to add to it? Why would they leave out the study of how are laws are made and how our government is supposed to work? After all, they say that they are testing for essential knowledge. Isn’t the knowledge of how our country is supposed to work essential?

I am seriously worried that schools will only emphasize subjects that are likely to get them the Holy Grail of Annual Yearly Progress. That the schools will emphasize test taking skills instead of independent thinking. That the subject that can enable our children to see themselves as a part of the decision-making process of our local, state, and national policies will be left to the wayside as it is not part of AYP.

I am worried our students will be left dependent on others to explain to them how the government works and be left with little choice but to take that other’s interpretation as truth. For they will not have had the opportunity to learn the truth for themselves. Maybe that other will be honest and have our kids’ best interests at heart.

Knowing, human nature, is it worth taking that kind of chance?

Please do not go away from this post with the misapprehension that I feel putting social studies into the law would bo an appropriate way to fix this. I think this law needs to be completely rewritten to address many problems. I just find it funny how the one subject left to pushed to the side is the one that would best help the students understand how laws are made and what government is about.

This law is currently up for reauthorization. I think, especially on this day, that it is incumbent upon us as citizens to demand our legislators craft a better law. One that gives our kids a better chance of taking part in the great debates that should be shaping our country’s future. One that does not make them dependent upon others to explain how our government works and that the power of that government derives from them.

Happy Independence Day.