Thursday, January 19, 2012

Zen and the Art of Teaching

American Idol returned tonight, and while they highlight some good singers, the audition shows are all about the delusional. I'm not throwing stones. Sometimes, I think delusional might be a nice place to live. Think about it. To be blissfully unaware, clueless, secure in the profound belief that you are awesome would be liberating.

Don’t get me wrong. Some days I actually am awesome, but I know when I’m not. Today, a bit of delusion would have been useful, but I just couldn't muster any. So in lieu of delusion, I’m going to indulge in a little public therapy.

Over the years, I’ve invited a lot of visitors into my classroom: principals, other teachers, college kids, guests from foreign countries. I've had them all. As a general rule, visitors, announced or otherwise, don’t shake me. I learned I was hosting today’s visitors, teachers in my district in a leadership program, during class change, five minutes before they walked into my classroom. I knew most of them. One was a former student. Another was a close friend.

No worries. Right?

My colleagues would be observing an honors class with no real behavior issues. My lesson plan was a little loose, but when we’re discussing a reading assignment, it often is. I have five or six points I want to be sure to hit, but mostly, I let the discussion go where it goes. When kids work through their own questions about the text, pinging ideas off of each other, extending the text into their own experiences and drawing conclusions about culture and life and everything in the world that matters…that’s when the magic happens.

Except when it doesn’t.

The bell rang. I simultaneously tried to find seats for my guests and get my kids started on their journals, a bell ringer activity that keeps them busy while I’m dealing with housekeeping issues and gets them thinking about the discussion for the day. I usually go over it before they start writing, but teachers kept filing into the room. The original group of four guests turned into six, then seven, then ten. Okaaaay. Third hour was now standing room only.

The kids couldn’t get settled because several of my guests were elementary and middle school teachers they knew and loved. Lots of excited waving and even some hugging ensued. In hindsight, always 20-20, I should have just stopped, acknowledged the unusual situation, and let the excitement play out before I moved on. Instead, I tried to play it cool. Why? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe because my class wouldn’t settle, and I was beginning to feel like a rat in a science experiment.

Just as I finally started talking, two boys who sit right in front of me began to gag and spit. Brown sludge coated their tongue and brown drool ran down their chins.

“ACK! UGH! Oh my GOD! You said this was chocolate!”

A girl two rows over replied, “It is. Dark chocolate.”

“YOU GAVE US DARK CHOCOLATE?!? I need a drink! Ms. Owens! I’m gonna die!”

The class erupted. Tweedledee and Tweedledum basked in the glow of the spotlight even as they spat chocolate into their hands and knocked over a chair trying to get to the door and the water fountain beyond.

I rolled my eyes and called for quiet, but my deep reservoir of zen had sprung a leak. I reminded myself that my guests were actual teachers who deal with craziness on a regular basis. Onward and upward. I threw out my first question and got a tepid response. This was the same question that had generated 30 minutes of rich discussion in my first hour class. Different class, different kids. I mixed it up and tried again. Instead of waiting for a volunteer, I called on specific students. Lukewarm. One word. No response. Flat out wrong. My reservoir was draining fast.

Like a bad American Idol contestant, when things went wrong, I just started singing louder and more off key. Instead of letting the kids make the connections, I started making them myself. Instead of facilitating discussion, I lectured.


Tweedledee was still wiping dark chocolate off his tongue with his sleeve, but he had his book open and seemed to be reading furiously.

Ah ha. The light dawned.

When I’m flummoxed, I’m slow on the uptake. A third of the class was either studiously avoiding eye contact with me or reading as fast as their little eyes could scan the page. I’m mean when I’m embarrassed and pissed off, so I targeted those kids with laser precision, forcing them to say it out loud in front of the company. “I don’t know. I didn’t do the reading.” And no, I’m not particularly proud of that either.

I had a conversation later with my friend. She assured me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but she’s my friend, and I don’t think she would say anything to make me feel worse than I did. Turns out, the group was supposed to be making notes about rigor in the classroom. My friend told me I asked rigorous questions.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that.

My guests left after 20 inglorious minutes, and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with the class. Tomorrow is a new day, and I’ll bet my next paycheck that the kids who didn’t read last night will be prepared tomorrow. They’re not bad kids. They’re just kids. And a wrench in the works (or dark chocolate streaming from a boy’s mouth) is not usually enough to turn me into a babbling Cruella DeVille, but I’m not delusional enough to make that claim today.

No comments:

Post a Comment