I’m selfish about writing

As teachers, we are constantly being pushed to write. At any given time, we have mounds and mounds obligatory writing. Things like lesson plans, student evaluations, and email(!!) are always lurking, waiting for us after we collect our exit tickets. Our students leave, we sit in front of our computer, and we’re attacked. Most times, at least for me, writing becomes a chore.

But despite all the rudimentary writing that’s required in teaching, there is hope. Some of us find the motivation to expand the walls of our classrooms through our writing to help start (or join) a larger conversation around tracking or teacher tenure, say. The focus here is on the bigger picture. Often times this includes writing about educational policy. Things like Op-Eds come to mind. Some teachers — and this is becoming more and more common — even contribute to the larger teaching community by assiduously writing a book. Yes, a book!

There is a definite lure to this sort of writing. It can affect change that goes far beyond writing a lesson plan for a superintendent’s visit. Our written words can motivate. It can trigger tough, but necessary, conversations with one another. It helps us to unite teachers from different schools and districts. From some of us, and this has to be said whether we want to hear it or not, it also feeds our ego. It amplifies our own voice.

I’ve never been interested in any of that. I write for me. This blog was born 5 years ago and each post is almost always an intellectual or emotional purge. A brain dump, if you will. I squeeze my thoughts from my head down to my fingertips and tap them out on my keyboard for no one other than me. Is that bad? Maybe. Is it selfish? Definitely.

But I don’t really care. I’ve found that writing for myself helps to clarify what I think I’m thinking and to better understand my own complexities. This is not unlike what Marcus Aurelius did in Meditations. I’m always better teacher after I write. (To get all meta, this post in itself is a great example of this.)

Twitter, originally popularized as a micro-blogging platform, serves the same purpose for me. When I tweet, most times it captures a moment — something that I’m thinking about or want to write more deeply about. I usually carefully construct my tweets. If there are replies, I don’t mind connecting with others, but I usually tweet for reflection. A micro-brain dump.

I’ll even extend this to non-blog, non-Twitter writing. I especially enjoy the hand-written reflections and Friday Letters that I write to students, which have become more and more important to me through the years. Student recommendations letters are also a refreshing change of pace for my writing. While I used to view them as a burden, I’ve come to appreciate their reflective nature. It is there that I can formally channel all of my thoughts into a single student and summarize their experiences with me.

I’ve stretched my reflections further by auditing an English class at my school. Instead of planning my own engaging lessons or replying to the 217 emails that I get each day, I selfishly attend everyday 7th period, take notes, study for vocab quizzes, the whole nine. I’m a student again! It’s a fun and reflective class — and there’s plenty of writing. Right now I’m crafting a profile on my colleague Patrick Callahan. I’ve admired him and his work for a while. Writing about him is not only helping bring me closer to him, but also to the teacher that I want to become. The class involves research and structured reflections that I wouldn’t otherwise do or make time for. I’m thankful for it.

 

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Haiku #2 – Sidewalk Math

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the second post in the series.

My students and I will be doing some Sidewalk Math this week. Inspired by one of my exceedingly poetic students, and in the spirit of my recent interest in haiku, I wrote this:

With a little chalk

Pattern and logic emerge

From a shy sidewalk

 

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On Haiku + Haiku #1

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the first post in the series.

I have loved to write for a long time. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m beginning to really appreciate poetry. Specifically, Haiku.

Crisp and elegant, it’s simplicity is a major draw for me. It captures what’s left of a moment after you strip away all of the noise that accompanies it. I’m hoping to plunge myself into this art form in the coming months. Other than some scribbles in a notebook, here’s my humble first attempt.

I left home for home

Reunited here today

My students and I

 

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Excerpts from Teaching Community by bell hooks

I finished Teaching Community by bell hooks this past week. After loving Teaching to Transgress last year, this was my second bell hooks read.

She has a way of writing that, as the reader, bonds you to her. She never talks over you — she welcomes you into her world. While very theoretical in nature, she never loses me as she reflects on lessons learned and decisions made in her personal and professional lives. Her words are swift, but they pack a punch. She is one of the few authors that I’ve read who speaks of teaching with emotion. She even drops the L word (gasp!) when it comes to her students. There’s so much talk about humanizing teaching and learning these days, but combining social justice with the struggle we face in the classroom everyday, bell hooks was doing this work 20 years ago. Most of us, like me, are just catching up.

Before I return it to the library, I want to tap out a few excerpts that I know will stay with me for a while.

Serving students well is an act of critical resistance. It is political. And therefore it will not yield the normal rewards provided when we are simply perpetuating the status quo. …Teachers who care, who serve their students, are usually at odds with the environments wherein they teach. More often than not, we work in institutions where knowledge has been structured to reinforce dominator culture….Conventional pedagogy often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience, the need to hear fresh ideas to stimulate work, or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students. This is tradition of abuse the caring teacher seeks to challenge and change. The teacher who can ask of students, “What do you need in order to learn?” or “how can I serve?” brings to the work of educating a spirit of service that honors the students will to learn. (pp. 90-92)

 

Most of the time white men allow themselves to deny awareness, to keep from sensing moods and being empathic. Feeling the mood, being open comes from a practice of respect, a willingness to acknowledge up front that you may not and will not be automatically accepted everywhere you go. The practice of “pausing” is a practice of respect. It allows you to aknowledge and access other people’s feelings without violating that space with your insistence that you have a right to be there, or anywhere you want to be. By pausing, by demonstrating deference to those who may reject you, to give them the opportunity to be in doubt and to possibly reject you is one way to repudiate white male privilege, and one way to allow others to be in the position of the chooser, the authority. (pp. 113-14) [Ron Scapp, quoted by bell hooks]

 

To speak of love in relation to teaching is already to engage in a dialogue that is taboo. When we speak of love and teaching, the connections that matter most are the relationship between teacher and subject taught, and the teacher-student relationship. When as professors we care deeply about our subject matter, when we profess to love what we teach and the process of teaching, that declaration of emotional connection tends to be viewed favorably by administrators and colleagues. When we talk about loving our students, these same voices usually talk about exercising caution. They warn us about the dangers of getting “too” close. Emotional connections tend to be suspect in a world where the mind is valued above all else, where the idea that one should be and can be objective is paramount. (p. 127)

 

When I asked one of my students, now a law professor, if my love of her created a climate of favoritism in the classroom, she laughed stating: “Are you kidding? The more you loved us, the harder we had to work.” There can be no love without justice. (p. 137)

 

College education is so often geared toward the future, the perceived rewards that the imagined future will bring that it is difficult to teach students that the present is a place of meaning. In modern schooling the messages students receive is that everything that they learn in the classroom is mere raw material for something that they will produce later in life. This displacement of meaning into the future makes it impossible for students to fully immerse themselves in the art of learning and to experience that immersion as a complete, satisfying moment of fulfillment. …Of course these students are obsessed with grades and willing to do almost anything to ensure that they will get the evaluation that most boosts their future chances of success….today’s frantic need to push towards deadlines, covering set amounts of material, allows very little room, if any, for silence, for free-flowing work. Most of us teach and are taught that it is only the future that really matters. (pp. 166-67)

 

I am troubled because our institutions are conservative and they confine our voices and our imaginations more than we know. Unwittingly, we become our own gatekeepers, representatives of an institution, and not devotees to the sacred world of imagination. We censor ourselves. We bring an aura of death into the classroom when we close down the imagination’s right to say and to do what it needs. (p. 169-70)

 

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Dear M, (Student Letter #3)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging with individual students, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the 3rd post in the series.

Dear M,

I’ve had you as a student for two years now. I’ve gotten to know you well. It pains me think about your struggles because your feelings towards math have soured while in my class.

Last year was good for us, productive. It was the first half of the two-year track for algebra 2 that you were involuntarily placed in by our school. You worked hard all year. Asked lots of questions. I found you very capable. Little did I know what was bubbling underneath the surface.

This year I assigned the Mathography in September. In yours, you opened up about your strong dislike for math through the years and how being placed in a two-year course against your wishes affected your self-worth. It made you feel inadequate as a learner of mathematics. Given our experiences last year, I found both of these things surprising. I should’ve known. That’s on me.

I made a focused effort to listen to you more this year. During our talks — all during class time mind you — you’ve helped me feel the negative emotions that can come with learning math. From jump, you shared your frustrations about the class, about our school. Being a small crop of seniors in a sea of sophomores and juniors taking the class, you looked inward and wondered why you were so bad at math. M, you are not bad at math. We made you believe that.

Hearing your story firsthand and seeing your tears hit home. I told you that for the last two years I lobbied for our school to reform how we track students in math classes. No one has listened to me. While we do a lot of things right here, tracking has created a social hierarchy within our school that is hurtful and unjust. It shames students and reinforces stereotypes about math that you know well. You are a product of this system. I’m sorry for being part of the problem.

But my weak apology and efforts to advocate for systemic change on behalf of students like you don’t matter. Not at this moment. Not now, in late April, when you’ve all but given up. I had my chance to do something different, to help you engage, to help you find a purpose to our class, and I didn’t. We had a few small wins, but nothing consistent. No lie, I get frustrated with you — like I did today with the quiz. I can’t escape my own flaws, M. I wish I could. I’m being pulled in so many directions during class, the needs so great and so diverse, that instead of being creative and resourceful, I indirectly place blame on you. Again, this is on me.

Now you’ve lost interest in achieving anything meaningful through math. Respectfully, you come back each day to spend another 45 minutes in a haze of confusion. While never rude, you’re in so much pain that you laugh and make a self-deprecating joke anytime I approach you about grades or hand back assessments. I want you to know that this eats away at me.

I can only hope that somebody down the road can help you reconnect with math. I know it won’t be me and I’m ok with that. I hope that when you discover success through math, you relish it in all its glory. Stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Mr. P