Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Why I Love Teaching

This week reminded me of why I love this profession so much.

In my first block, College Composition II, my students have been reading Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You.

It's a heavy read.  And when you're a senior in high school and you finally get to look out the window and see the sun and a patch of brown grass instead of a foot of snow, reading a book about how to become remarkable in a future job is not the most compelling thing.  Plus, when you factor in that graduation is less than 40 days away, it's a difficult task to focus on anything.

Yet, I preach to them finish strong.  Finish strong.  And I have to remind them that you won't remember much about your first month of high school, but there are things from the last month of school that will stick with you forever.  And this is true with anything.  I remember my last 20 minutes of high school.  I sat talking with my former football coach and a bunch of underclassmen in study hall while a bunch of my peers rode around the school honking and celebrating.  I remember my final football game, the final out of my high school baseball career, my last day of college, my last day an an RA, my final day of grad school, the final months of my mom's life, and then the final months of my father's life . . .  The final moments stick with us the longest (and often foreshadow all that went before it).

So to try and break them out of the funk that is senioritis, I had students do a presentation on the concept of 'deliberate practice,' which Newport argues is the number one ingredient for being successful at your job, and, thus, developing passion for your work, and, thus, being so good you can't be ignored.

I tasked students with focusing on something they've worked really hard to accomplish or master (this could be in athletics.  I recall starting baseball the summer before 8th grade.  I didn't know what else to play so I signed up for catcher.  Little did I know all the work that it took to be an average catcher! During my first real game time, I got stuck with an outfielder who could pitch . . . a little.  It didn't help that I struggled to catch for our starting pitchers, not to mention someone they just tossed in to get a little game experience just in case we needed a sixth pitcher!  I spent more time running to the back stop to get the ball than I did anything else.  I was terrible.  The only way I eventually worked my way up to starting varsity three years later was through A LOT of practice.  I recall spending 15 minutes each varsity practice with a volunteer coach working on blocking the ball to keep it in front of me.  I squatted with my hands behind my back, decked out in all my catcher's gear, while he threw baseball that bounced a foot, two feet, six inches in front of me.  Over time, I got better.  Over the years, I spent A LOT less time running to the back stop to get passed balls.  Soon my senior year, blocking a dirt ball was as natural as it was to put my gear on).

I wanted students to realize that they have already done a lot of deliberate practice.  It might have been in the form of athletics, choir, orchestra, band, skating, studying, writing, gaming . . . but they have done it.

I wanted them to reflect on this and talk about it to the class.  Of course, I had them do this with an eye toward how to use this deliberate practice toward surviving college and then even becoming remarkable at their jobs.

And the students didn't disappoint.  I saw presentations from students who talked about how they went from struggling to learn in elementary school to being honor students as seniors . I saw presentations from athletes who focused on the time spent in the gym, softball field, and pool that it took to master skills.  I saw presentations from students who love to trap shoot, train horses, and even make the perfect ice cream cone from Dairy Queen.  I even had a senior hook up his playstation to my projector and challenge me to a game of NHL 18.  Of course he perfectly illustrated his deliberate practice to master the game by challenging me, who hasn't played a hockey video game since the wonderful Blades of Steel on the old Nintendo!

I was amazed and awed.  The presentations weren't perfect, but the students worked and their peers were engaged and we all learned from each other.  Best of all, the concept of deliberate practice was illustrated well.

I was proud of my students.  Many were proud of themselves too.

In my second block, Lit and Lang 9R, we have been working our way through the anchor texts of our Collections text.  To help them with that - and to expose them to more books and to, hopefully, provide them with more enjoyable reading experiences - (and I cannot state how important that is for these struggling readers.  From the benchmark testing Mrs. Johnson did with them to the 13 weeks I've spent with them now, one thing is clear: they simply don't enjoy reading.  So it's been my mission to present them with more enjoyable reading experiences) - hence the book we just finished reading, Clive Barker's The Thief Of Always.

How to describe it?  It's part The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with a bit of Jumanji thrown in and a bit of Something Wicked This Way Comes to boot.  Oh yeah.  It has some of Bradbury's The Halloween Tree to it too.

I read the entire book to the class so I could gauge their interest and understanding with periodic check up questions and discussion starters.  I also wanted to be sure they were reading.

As the reading was winding down, we were at a key part in the rising action just before the climax.  One of the beloved characters in the story, Mrs. Griffin, is being released from an evil spell and she is fading away.  She is going to die.  This is something she is quite happy about.  It's a tender scene and written very well.

As I was finishing Mrs. Griffin's final words, the chapter ended.

I looked up and saw 12 kids utterly stunned.  There was silence.  And silence for a dozen freshman, 10 of whom are boys, is something!

I glanced over to one student, and she looked at me, fanned her eyes with the reading packet and said, "I'm going to cry!"

I haven't had that strong of a reaction to a piece since one of my ninth graders pulled his hood up over his head, laid his head on the table, and wept as the Tom Robinson was found guilty in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I don't often get reactions like that from my college in the high school kids!

Finally, in College Composition I I've had enough.

I was so tired of battling students and their cell phones.  My third block CC class isn't ideal.  I have 31 students, which makes it difficult to pack everyone in.  Plus, with that many students - and especially with this group of students - it's a major struggle to get them to focus.

So this week I brought a Star Wars box from home and used it as a 'jail' for their cell phones.  I gave the class an option: they could either put their phones away OR they could put them in the 'jail' if they didn't trust themselves.

And here's the catch that makes this so particularly effective . . . I warned them that if I saw them on their phones instead of reading or working on their papers, I was going to take one point off their final paper grade per time I catch them!

Needless to say, you can hear a pin drop as 31 Gen Zers are focused and getting stuff done like never before.

One student, who is very talented but also loves her phone like no other, was hammering out her essay during the block.  As the bell was about to bring, I said, "Man, you killed it today.  You got so much done."

"I know," she said, looking guilty . . . "I wasn't able to go on my phone."

Yes! Victory!

Three different classes.  Sixty four students.  Sixty four different challenges.  A couple dozen real challenges.  But it was so worth it. I couldn't imagine doing anything else than working with these students.

No comments: