Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bye, Bye, Bye, Dr. Vega: Make It Twerk

I'm a regular reader of advice columns, as I am a regular advice giver and taker, myself.  So, at least twice a week, I read about someone's crazy boss, who is unapproachable and delusional.  

Sometimes I can relate.
But my principal's constant refrain, even today, even after he learned this week that he will be leaving New Tech Odessa for the even sparser pastures of Arizona, is "Gipson, where's the blog?"  And after a nearly semester-long hiatus, here it is.  

Today, I helped to indoctrinate nine new facilitators into the Way of the New Tech.  By lunchtime, I was sure that we had ruined their lives.  Their mouths were slack in shock and I still think one of them looked like they were about to cry as they tried to create a project briefcase in Echo.  But throughout the day, the founding facilitators were on hand, poking their heads in and reminding us that we were them once.  
This is what all New Tech facilitators look like after they've got a year under their belts.
So when I got home today, after saying goodbye to Dr. Vega, I looked through my past blogs and tried to reconcile the year that I really experienced and what it all meant.  

I left this blog way back in February, at the inception of NTO's first Writing Center, which is still the baby that I think I'm most proud of and most excited to be working on again next year.  I'll be sitting down with the local university to do some studies, which we will hopefully be presenting at the South Central Writing Center Association this year (maybe with some learners!).  

In April, we launched another baby of mine, the Hector Mendez Reading Series, which brought in two amazing authors in April and May.  The learners who were able to attend were, I think, blown away, and I'm expecting an even bigger turnout next year.  

Pictured: What being blown away looks like.  I think.
In May, we had our Spring Formal, which was alternately terrifying and wonderful.  It was wonderful, because we got to see our learners dressed up for something that wasn't a presentation.  It was terrifying, because sometimes Dr. Vega forgot to chaperone once and started dancing by himself in the foyer of the school.  Also, there were just generally a lot of mustaches involved in that night; that wasn't terrifying.  It's just an observation. 

You can't tell, but right after this, he started doing the worm.  
And those are all wonderful, life-affirming, career-affirming moments.  I mean, really.  But they don't really come close to the highlight of the spring semester.  I mean, Dr. Vega twerking is something, I guess, but it's not the highlight. 

No, the highlight was NSYNC.  

It's, like, a metaphor for this blog post.... Whooaaaa....
One day, my team teacher got off the phone and sat down in his chair, looking shell-shocked.  

"What's wrong?" I asked him.

"I can't believe I just agreed to that," he said, horrified.  "I just can't believe it.  What have I done?"

I, of course, thought he'd agreed to spearhead another Culture Day, or maybe a school-wide project, or another school dance.  You know, one of the usual things that make us horrified when we realize what we've gotten ourselves into.  

"I," said my team teacher, "am going to be a Backstreet Boy for the talent show." 

"It's basically the same as One Direction, right?" said no teenager ever.  
Yes, dear readers, our male facilitators had agreed to lip-synch to a Backstreet Boys song for our Culture Day talent show, no doubt envisioning the swooning learners and flashing cameras of the Digital Portfolio classes.  

And I told myself, "Oh, this will not do." Because, you see, I'm a giver, and I wanted to, you know, not steal their thunder, but, perhaps, contribute to their endeavors.  Except stealthily.  And without their consent.

Spice Girls was the obvious choice.  We would counter their swaying and emphatic hand motions with a rigorous and girl-powery dance routine.   The talent show coordinator was in on the plan and a particular fan of zigazigah. But Dr. Vega is sly and sussed out our plan before it was off the ground.  By the next week, he was cracking Ginger Spice jokes in the corridors.  So, we laughed.  Oh, how we laughed. 

Because, gentle reader, our plan had changed.  By that time, we were already elbow deep in a dance routine for the true foes of the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC.  And not one but two of the founding facilitators were our biggest supporters in this.  

And there's just something about dancing elbow-to-elbow with someone, there's something about pumping your fist into the air and then flapping your hand goodbye at an invisible audience, that makes you realize that if you weren't family before, then you sure as hell are now.  

Today, I found myself reminding the new hires, over and over again, that we're a family.  And it might have taken a while for me to understand, but family at NTO, as a facilitator, means that you trust your co-workers to support you unconditionally.  There are many things that make working at a New Tech school one of the most frustrating experiences I've ever had and most of them have to do with being the type of person who gets hired for this position in the first place.  

We are Apple Distinguished, we are a New Tech Network National Demonstration Site, we have an on-campus art gallery, a visiting writer reading series, a Writing Center, and more.  All of that comes with so much responsibility that sometimes it makes me a little dizzy to realize how much we are doing as a high school going into its third year of existence.  

But I'm not alone.  I've never been alone.  

One of our staff norms is "embrace change."  It's easy to say, but it was hard to look at Vega today and realize that he would never be there to do facilitate those traditions that I associate with NTO: he's the guy who stands outside every day to shake the hands of every single student (and check his watch very obviously if you're cutting it close to 8:30).  He's the guy who reads the morning and afternoon announcements, "Good afternoon, New Tech OOOOOOOOOdessa. We've come to the end of another day here at NTO.  Learners, facilitators, I have a few announcements, so hands up!" He's the guy with the manic speeches, for whom nothing is ever good enough and the sky is the limit.  He's the guy with the catch-phrases: 

Handle your business!
Not here!
On time, on task, on a mission!

So, when we learned that Vega was leaving this week, it was definitely a shock.  I'm happy for him, because I think he's moving onto something he's definitely earned and somewhere where he'll be able to make a huge difference in the lives of students.  I'm also thrilled for our new principal, Ms. Salcido, because I think she's going to continue to push us in an exciting direction.  

But most of all, I'm relieved at how much trust I have in my fellow facilitators.  This next year will be great, because we're a family.  This next year will surpass even Vega's wildest dreams, because they're the type of team that's willing to give their afternoons and weekends to learning seriously the world's hardest dance like ever, so that the learners can have a good laugh (maybe or maybe not at the expense of the male facilitators).  They're the type to show up to a training that they're not even spearheading, just to let you know that they support you. 

And maybe one of these days we'll actually get around to performing that dance.  

We're not in any hurry.  We would only be persuaded to perform for the children.

In the meantime, who knows the places we'll go.

Signing off.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

No Hype, Just Talent

They say that teenagers are lazy. They say that they're selfish. They say teenagers are slackers, are shallow, are out of touch.

Not at my school.

They say that teachers are jaded, underqualified, and satisfied with the minimum effort from themselves and their learners.

Not at my school.

They say that administrators sit behind their desks all day, don't care about what the teachers want or need-- or what the students want or need.

Not at my school.

When I was in dance, way back when I was still coordinated, we had a lot of themed recitals. One of them was called "Everything and the Kitchen Sink." I believe I wore a purple spangled outfit and brandished a light saber.

But the recital that always stuck with me was called "No Hype, Just Talent." No gimmicks. No flash. Just a bunch of gangly dancers doing what dancers do.

It's recruitment time at NTO, and with that comes a lot of responsibility to dazzle the incoming fishies with our MacBooks and our common areas and-- look! Our tables have wheels, whee!!!

But WE speak for ourselves.

Today, my administrator listened to and accepted my proposal for an on campus Writing Center. Immediately after our talk, I sent out emails to a dozen or so highly recommended learners, asking them to consider becoming peer tutors.

I expected a low, ambivalent response. I'm not offering them much. I guess it's a cool thing to put on a resume, but essentially it's academic, volunteer work.

Within minutes I had responses:

"This sounds like fun!"

"I'll be there!"

"I'm definitely interested in this program."

Why? Because we get better kids or because we made them drink the New Tech Kool-Aid?

No. Because I think that's what this environment creates: kids who care about each other. Kids who care about academic readiness. Kids to whom devoting their free time to help their peers just sounds like a good idea.

Before I came to New Tech, I had no idea what to expect from teenagers. But it wasn't this. Honestly, having seen such maturity, generosity, and dedication from the hormone-riddled proto humans that stalk our hallways, I now have much higher expectations for the adults around me.

There's no Gangnam Style in this blog, no funny pictures, no lol RLY SKOOL IZ 4 STRESS CAT jokes. Every now and then I think you-- whether you're an educator, an administrator, a learner, or a bystander-- just need to stop and be humbled about what these kids are doing just because of who they are:

No hype, just talent.

Friday, December 7, 2012

So Fly Like a D6

Gangsta Introduction Is Going Medieval on this Blog


“I’ve totally hit the October Wall.”

“Not the October Wall!” said no one.

There are certain things that, at one point or another in your life, you promise yourself will never happen.  Some of those things, in no particular order are: robbing banks, rapping in public, puppy hunting, being a railway car hobo, and climbing on top of refrigerators.
"Go ahead.  Do it.  I dare you."
Sometimes you break promises to yourself.
For me, one of those promises was that I would never play the game Dungeons and Dragons. I'd already been pulled into sufficiently nerdy games like Arkham Horror, which is based on H.P. Lovecraft. I felt that I had reached my quota.
Before I get into this, let’s just all agree that Dungeons and Dragons is for nerds.  Whether you love it or not, it’s the third most ridicule-worthy game of all games, closely following World of Warcraft and bridge. Even people with no IDEA what goes on in a game of Dungeons and Dragons beyond the assumed commentary on the state of someone’s mother’s basement know that D&D is for nerds.   As a new player, I'm happy to admit that and go on enjoying it.

There's an entire introductory college course to achieve this level of judgment.
Or, you can just be around people who play Dungeons and Dragons.  

And if you want more proof, I’ll give you some background in girl-shorthand: As far as I can tell from the four times I’ve played it so far, D&D is a game set in The Hobbit as produced by Jim Henson, where each player plays with miniature dolls who represent their imaginary character. Each player then goes around talking to each other about their made-up lives while they fight monsters and whatnot.  Really it’s not that different from a video game, except instead of a computer letting you know how the story is going to go, the combined efforts of a Dungeon Master (narrator) and many, many dice determine how strong your enemies are, how fast your reflexes are, and how much of a BAMF your character is.  
I guess?  I had to roll a D20 to determine whether or not I understood the directions.  
 When I started working at NTO, I came from the same background as my college professors, and I approached my students the same way I did when I taught 101/102.  I didn’t really want to get involved in their personal lives; I didn’t want to know anything about who was dating who or what their parents were like or how many siblings they had, because GROSS.  In college, students are hardly even people; they are just miniature paper mills that you have to go home and GRADE for HOURS.  If a bad student stops showing up for class, you do both an internal and external happy dance, because that’s one less set of papers you have to suffer through.
Are you... crying?  There's no crying in American Romanticism.  
In November, I started playing games with myself to get through the school day.  One of my games was to pick a colleague and see if I could get through the entire day without seeing them, even though I work at a tiny school and we all share two hallways, a staff room, and a cafeteria.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like my colleagues; it was just something to keep me on my toes.  Another game I played was to figure out what my principal was going to say to me as I walked up to the building, where he waits outside to greet the learners.  

Vega: "On time, on task, on a mission!"
Me: "Yes! I win."
Because my give-a-crap was broken, I became less worried about what my kids thought of me.  I became more inflexible and more confident in my own authority, in a matter of weeks.  I learned to love the phrase, “I know it sounds like I’m asking you to do it, because I respect your autonomy-- we’ll talk about that when we get to Shakespeare-- but I’m really telling you to do it.”   
Strangely, the more authority and confidence I collected, the more my kids seemed to like me.  I started joking around with them more, I started learning about their personal lives, and over the last two weeks, I realized that I really like my learners. Like, as people.  

"I don't see people.  I just see small, loud papers."

And that’s where Dungeons and Dragons, and a lifetime of broken promises comes in.
Above: Pencil, character sheet, figurines, dice,
 and the revocation of all the coolness that I won from that one party I threw in grad school.  
I joined the D&D club at the behest of another teacher and stayed because I was so warmly welcomed by them, or maybe because they laughed at a couple of my jokes.  What I learned while I was there was that a) the learner acting as the Dungeon Master is a very good storyteller and b) those kids are hilarious and c) it’s kind of amazing and shocking that a game which would have gotten someone beaten up at the high school I attended is treated with such openmindedness at New Tech. The sole exception might be our principal, who totally judges us.
Vega: "How was Pokemon last night?"
Me: "Huh.  I was not expecting that one."
It’s not worth teaching at a New Tech if you don’t buy into the culture of family, I don’t think.  Sure, the computers are shiny and delightful.  The Project Based Learning is engaging and exciting.  And that’s all great, but it’s also stuff that you can take anywhere, into any school, and implement.  The really great thing at NTO and the thing that finally got me over the October Wall and the thing that makes me keep showing up at these D&D meetings is that these learners really care about each other and I think there’s something special about them knowing, without a doubt, that all of their facilitators care about them, too.  I don't think I really felt that with many of my teachers, if any, when I was in high school.
I play because I care.
We get really hung up, I think, on our own excellence.  I don’t know what it’s like at other New Tech schools, but ours gets a lot of love and attention from the community, which means that we are constantly aware of the need to be on top of our game.  We know that we’re different, we know that we’re special, and we know that what we do matters not just to us but maybe, one day, to the future of education.  When people come through our schools, I know they want to see that excellence and the easiest way to see that is in the project teams, the common areas, the laptops, and so on.  That's the STUFF that makes us different.  
But I think the most obvious and immediately important way that the New Tech system differs from other educational systems-- and the one that has changed me forever as a teacher-- is that this model is so inherently humanistic.  When someone from the community walks in here, the one thing I really hope they see is how much each individual learner is cared about.  I hope they see how the prickliest learners, the ones who are always watching to see whether other people are noticing how cool they are, will really get into a project, because they know that everyone is counting on them. I hope they see the yearbook club staying after school to watch D&D, because they really want to understand what's going on-- and also, because some of the players are pretty cool, I guess. I would have hung out with them when I was their age.  Rather than being ostracized for being in something nerdy, these kids get the full support of their peers and facilitators in their pursuits.
In most schools, teaching is like Dungeons and Dragons-- you create a character and you wear that teaching persona like a mask.  What pulled me from the misery of the October Wall was the realization that wearing a mask like that is repulsive to these learners. They hate falseness. They want to see that you genuinely care; they want to see you get genuinely excited; they want to see who you REALLY are.
Are you happy now?
And, really, it's probably just as important that the education system becomes more humanistic towards facilitators as it is important that it becomes more humanistic towards learners. And, if that happens, we will have facilitators who are rolling natural 20s every time they enter the classroom.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Floor Is Lava

Did you know that the Great Wall of China was completed in October?  If you did not, that's because that last statement was a lie.  But there is a wall in October.  I was warned about it from Day One at New Tech Odessa, so I can't pretend that I didn't know it was coming.  But when October came around and I was still flying high with my ideals and beliefs and hope, I thought that maybe I was on the moon and the October Wall was just something that I would see from a distance, snaking around the rest of the world.  

It almost looks pretty from he---ahhh!

The October Wall, like Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins, has the power of invisibility.  That is its greatest secret and its greatest weapon.  Last week, I hit the October Wall so hard that I fell down and then had to stand up again and make sure that no one was watching. 
Oh, great.  Now I look like an idiot.
I understand that it's just a part of teaching that at some point you realize how futile your work is-- and then you slap yourself awake and realize that you are being an idiot.  I'm still slapping myself.  Good teachers do reflect on what is working for them but also what isn't working.  It's just that you are bound to wind up with some bruises in the process.  

I'm definitely going to grow from this experience.

This week was also Meeting of the Minds for the New Tech Network.  It was generally a cool experience, as we were talking about authenticity in our projects.  We also met some really nice people from a New Tech in Louisiana.  But, of course, I think there was a part of all of us that were panicking about the kids we'd left behind and the work that was waiting for us when we got back from meeting other people's minds.

And that pretty much sums up what I used to know about authenticity. 
Part of that is a trust issue.  At NTO, we preach "trust, respect, and responsibility" like those Rice Crispies guys preach "snap, crackle, and pop."  And I do trust my kids. Mostly.  I trust them to be human beings and also teenagers.  But when you plan a project, if you're like me, you're planning everything down to the letter.  There's room for flexibility, of course, but at the end of the day, those kids need to work.  

Pictured above: A cat working it.  Not what I'm talking about.
And once you've hit the October Wall, it becomes difficult to trust.  It's difficult to trust your kids, but more difficult to trust yourself.  You end up asking yourself all the usual question: 

What if my learners aren't getting it?

What if my projects suck?

What if they don't pass this six weeks?

What if Fahrenheit 451 really is a boring book?

What if I never find out what happens in Season 8 of How I Met Your Mother, because I'm always at school at 8/7pm Central Time?

I can't tell you how to get over the October Wall, because I'm still scrabbling around at the bottom of it trying to get my footing. 

This.  I want this.
But what I've discovered does work in trying to COPE with the October Wall is laughter.  I'm so lucky to be at a school where my coworkers can help me to cope with my frustrations by getting me to laugh. Our work lives have become enormous games of The Floor Is Lava.

If you've never played The Floor Is Lava before, that's because you either had a really great childhood or a really sad one.  The Floor Is Lava is when you climb around on your furniture like a monkey, because the floor is LAVA.  It ends when your parent knocks you down into the burning flames for climbing on the furniture or when you die from your head wound.  

So, if you have hit the October Wall, try doing some of these things.

When your coworkers ask you how your day is going, reply: FIREFIREFIREFIREFIRE.
When your friends from outside of work ask you how you like work, reply, "Please set me on fire."
When your principal asks you how your day is going, reply: "I'm on fire!"

It's funny, because: hyperbole.
After a while, I hope that when my principal asks me how I'm doing, I'll reply, "I'm on fire!" But what I'll really mean is that I've climbed over the October Wall.  But no matter what happens, I rely on my coworkers to keep me laughing at it.

So, for the first time, I'm asking something from my readers.  Tell me a joke.  Tell me a funny story.  Tell me something that will keep me laughing into November.  I think it's amazing that so many people are checking in to read this blog, but I know I can't be the only one who could benefit from a giggle or two in the coming weeks.  

With that in mind, I leave you with these closing words, this closing image, and this metaphor for the mind of a first year teacher: 


Friday, October 12, 2012

Teaching Gumbo

Louisiana is a beautiful state, but my question is "who cares about that?"  "Not a single person" is the answer to that echoes back from the bowels of the Internet.  Certainly the reason Jefferson snatched up that beautiful state is because he wanted to add some quirky interest to the fabric of the American people-quilt that we've been in the process of piecing together since 1492, or thereabouts.

Pictured: Actual Cajun.  Actually raging.
Also pictured: people-quilts. They keep America warm.
I don't live in Louisiana anymore, but not a day goes by that I don't think of the gumbo festivals that are going on in central Louisiana right now.  If you had been with me at that festival last year, you would still dream sweet dreams about the various and sundry exotic gumbos that were served by extremely friendly Cajun gumbo makers.

Above: Very exotic gumbo.  
So, Monday night, a friend and I made a huge vat of gumbo.  If you are unfamiliar with how to make gumbo and would like a recipe of your own to follow, well, have I got no news for you.  Our recipe suggested buying everything at the grocery store and throwing it in the pot, possibly with the wrappings still on.

That seems right. 
Our gumbo-making experience was the most fun we'd had in weeks, mostly because making gumbo is pretty fun.  And also because we were comparing the experience to the weekend prior.

Last Friday was the end of a very eventful and very stressful six weeks grading period.  If you have been following me, you noticed the radio silence on this blog.  Also, you probably noticed a lot of things that no one else has noticed, because you have too much free time.  How are things going in Toledo right now, by the way?

As a person, it's difficult to fail students, because on the contract that I signed with my school district, my job is to teach every single ninth grade student about English language and literature.  Someone has failed to include on my contract that teaching isn't nearly that straightforward.
It says here that I'm required to go to Professional Development fifteen times per week.
You're not just teaching.  You're also juggling and babysitting and scuba diving and any other number of metaphors for work that requires a lot of concentration and patience (fire-swallowing, grave robbing, dental technician...)

In the last two weeks, I've really doubted whether I'm cut out for teaching or not.  I love it, but it's also the most stressful job I've ever experienced.  I've found myself longing for the tedious and arduous hours of quiet study time of grad school.

At least books of critical theory don't make this face.
But here's the beautiful thing about my job for which I realized I am so lucky.  Every morning, I carpool to work with the friend that made gumbo with me.  Yesterday afternoon, while we were driving home, I sat in the car and told Mr. Justin all about my day and told Mr. Justin how frustrated I was.  My rant ended with, "But I love those kids."

Mr. Justin's instant response was, "THAT'S how you know that you're cut out for teaching."  That's all he had to say to make me shut up and realize that, as important as the teaching part of my job is, it's the process of my job, not the product.  It's the gumbo-making, not the gumbo.  And, honestly, the gumbo-making is easily the best part.

I have seen the face of teaching and it is gumbo.  There's no recipe; a lot of what you do is just throwing your best practices into a classroom (sometimes all at once) and hoping for the best.  Sometimes it turns out okay.  Sometimes it doesn't.

You decide.
But the whole idea of gumbo comes from a place of celebration, like the entire state of Louisiana.  When you're teaching, you are coming from a place of striving to do better.  You're coming from a place of doing the best with what you have.  What I am uniquely lucky to have is the friends and family here at NTO who are not only willing to contribute their share into the teaching gumbo, but who are ready to sit down and eat it with me.

My Dean of Students told me this week, "Take everything as a learning experience."

She was right, but I have my own teaching recipe. It involves a lot of crossing of fingers and hoping everything turns out okay:

Laissez les bon temps rouler.

See you next week, cher.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why I Should Be Ahnald (and other advice)

In my mind, I'm the female, Indiana Jones of English teachers.  We have pretty much everything in common.  I hate snakes; he hates snakes.  I've been in planes, and he's been in planes.  I love teaching and seem really boring most of the time, and he loves teaching and is Harrison Ford in real life.  We both fight Nazis, whatever, my point is that we are two peas in a pod.

But the truth is, I am not this:

How dare you not meet a deadline!

Because that guy is awesome.  He does what needs to be done, and I'm pretty sure he's killed someone.  I don't remember.  At the very least, he let that one guy drink out of the wrong cup, knowing full well that he was choosing... poorly.
Incidentally, that's how I teach the term "understatement."
I'm not that guy, though.  I feel like that guy.  I feel like I crack the whip on my kids all the time.  They seem to have realized in the last two weeks that they are, in fact, fourteen year olds.  They have also discovered that ninth graders LOOOOOVE to talk.  Especially when I'm talking.  That's their favorite.  And that makes me feel like they're ripping out my heart.
That's okay.  I didn't have anything important to say. This is just my career or whatever. 
It's not personal.  And it's very typical.  But here's where the NTO students vary from the average fourteen year olds: They're helping me learn how to teach.
Classroom management for college students, who I learned to teach on, is very VERY different than classroom management for ninth graders.  Sometimes you have to crack the whip, and most of the time they need you to.  In fact, my most disruptive kids will tell me willingly that they need someone to help them focus.  But I'm not capable of really cracking the whip.  That's not who I am as a teacher.  I can't be mean.  I can be disappointed and disapproving, and that works for a while, but it's a reactionary type of classroom management, not a proactive classroom management.
And I really wasn't sure what to do until yesterday, when I had this conversation with a group of students in my first class:
ME: (almost yelling) I need your attention up here, please!
BRITNEY: Miss, why are you always so nice?
ME: I don't understand.  You think this is nice?
BRITNEY: You're too nice. 
ME: I feel like I yell at this class all the time.  That's all I've done today.  When do you guys want to start learning things, by the way?
BRITNEY: You need to be mean sometimes.  You need to be so mean that they never want to do it again.

Britney wasn't saying that she wanted me to change.  Obviously, there are direct benefits to her if I continue to be nice.  She just wants me to find a balance, because my current inability to do so disrupts her learning experience.  She acknowledges that I have covered my bases with reinforcing classroom expectations.  She understands that I'm doing everything that I can do to prevent classroom madness.  She's saying that it's time to be this guy:
She wants me to be Kindergarten Cop.  Because he was terrifying, because: Predator.  But he was also this guy:
Incidentally, this is how I teach Shakespeare.

Now, here's the NTO connection. 
When I became a teacher, I assumed that my students don't really care about me.  Their feelings about me would be limited to how they felt about the class.  When I became a teacher, I told myself not to ever take anything personally.  But that's not what I learned here.  What I learned is that my students do care about their facilitators. 
This environment grows such empathy that it's almost unreal.  Every the learners who talk in class aren't doing so maliciously; it's not because they hate the class or that they're bored or that they're trying to be disrespectful.  Last night, at Open House, I got the chance to talk to a few of my more disruptive students alone.  One, Justin, is in a group that is always, always talking.  He confided in me that "We just get so excited when you're talking about the project.  We can't help ourselves.  We want to talk about our ideas." 

So, you're saying that even my most disruptive students are excited about the course, excited about the content, that they are capable of admitting when they do something wrong and apologizing for any distress it causes the facilitator?  So you mean that they have true empathy not just for themselves or their peers (which is something some adults never really grasp) but even for their facilitators?
That's the New Tech difference.  It's hard to be upset with a student who likes your course, who is so excited that they have to discuss it, and who doesn't have a problem learning how their impulses as fourteen year olds affect their environment.  That's something that can only happen at a school where trust, respect, and responsibility become a true way of life. 
And it's also probably why I have a really hard time doing very much of this:
Also because I'm not crazy and my students aren't thirty year old bald guys.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tales of a New Teacher

All student and teacher identities have been disguised to protect anonymity.  

If you haven't seen the viral video "Gangnam Style," then you are missing out.  Not only will you feel awkward at parties when all of your friends know how to ride an invisible horse to a techno beat, but you are also clearly never on the internet and, as such, either have lots of real-time friends or no friends at all.  In the latter case, don't worry about it.

The great thing about "Gangnam Style," if you can quantify such a delicious atrocity as anything like Great, is that it has all of the essential elements of a viral video.  It is the meta-viral video.  It a) takes itself just seriously enough, b) involves something that everyone can agree is pretty much wonderful (invisible horse dancing), and c) every single, last person in the video is absolutely committed to what is going on.  You know music video love is real when you can mime lassoing a calf in synchronicity.

My first few weeks of teaching have also been a lot like "Gangnam Style," in that they, like a viral video, seem to have happened overnight.  When I started work at New Tech Odessa, my principal warned me that every day I would "wake up running," meaning that every day is a very productive race.  At the Olympics.  But, as a first year teacher, I'm not so much concerned anymore about the level of work that NTO demands as I am of the fact that, for the first time in six years, I am working somewhere from 7:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night; that's if you don't count the hours of prep work I do at home.  It's not unusual for a teacher, but it's unusual for a former career student.  In fact, everything about teaching in a public high school is unusual.

At the end of last week, I started getting a little down.  There's no downtime on this job; there's not even time to sit back at your desk and grade (it feels like there's barely enough time to take attendance). I felt like I was panicking-- like I had become so overwhelmed by my day-to-day routine that I just didn't know what to do at any given moment.

But then I had a talk with one of my co-workers, one of the most compassionate people I've ever worked with.  She told me that I was stronger than I knew and that I would be stronger on the other side of this year.  She also said, "If you need anything from me, anything at all... let me know.  I'm here for you."

And everything changed.

The next day, my students were really working.... REALLY WORKING.  They were being responsible, they were being ultra-respectful, my rowdiest students were working furiously in the common area, they were asking for more learning, they were learning what I hoped they would, and it all came together.  These last two days, I got a glimpse of what my time at NTO is going to be like.  I got a glimpse of what NTO IS.  And it's good.

The New Tech way of teaching and learning needs to go viral.  New Tech Odessa needs to go viral.  Because we are allowed to have fun; because the students are allowed to take themselves just seriously enough to do great things.  Because we are doing something that actively and interactively creates real learning in both the students and facilitators; this kind of education should be happening in every school, everywhere.  Because we, every last one of us, is absolutely devoted and committed to creating a New Tech family for our learners and facilitators.

When that co-worker passed on that kindness to me, it was like she was pressing the "Share" button on her favorite video.  It was as if she was giving me insight into what she wants education to look like-- that compassion should be shared by every New Tech Network facilitator and learner until the rest of the world has no choice but to stand up and take notice.  If we can create kindness and empathy in every level of education, the global community in which we live and interact will be that much better by extension.  I've already witnessed that first-hand.

Although if we really want to go viral, I think we'll need Rebecca Black in on this.