Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wall

I decided my senior year to play football on my high school team.  I had already lettered in baseball, but I wanted to have the experience of playing on the gridiron "for real" rather than in just some pick up games at the local park.  I didn't get to play much, but I sure did try my best to impress the coaches.

Until one day...

At the end of every practice we would sprint across the width of the field twice for one set and we would typically do 3 sets.  I was one of the fastest guys on the team, except when I was weighed down with the pads & helmet, then I was in the middle of the pack.  It was midway through the year, and I hadn't played much, so I decided to give everything I had on the sprints, and I mean everything.

On the first sprint, I finished around third.  I think my friend Fred and Tony Siragusa (a guy who played on the Super Bowl champion Ravens team over 10 years ago, he was freakishly fast for a guy his size, no wonder why he made the NFL) bested me.  On the second set, I couldn't keep up with the leaders, and fell back to the middle again.  By the third set I finished dead last, something I had never done in a sprint EVER.

But I was noticed.  The backfield coach came up to me as we were walking in and said, "Looks like you hit a wall out there".  The coach noticing me in the end didn't matter as I didn't get to play more, and my desire to try hard at practices died.

In education, students will all eventually hit "The Wall".  "The Wall" is the point when things stop "coming easy" for you and you have to actually read, do homework, and study in order to do well in a class.

(Except if you were like the guy in my history classes in college who could write letters instead of notes in Dr. Vos' class, and the answer the professor's questions perfectly while continuing to scribble down his thoughts in the letter, or yea, letters for you in the younger crowd was what we did when we didn't have email or text messaging).

"The Wall" typically occurs around 7th grade and it is no wonder why parents and kids alike say that 7th grade is the hardest year at my school.  It's not that the teachers are making it harder than in the other grades, its that the students' minds are transitioning from being concrete to abstract thinkers as well as the material becoming more difficult to digest.

Some would like us to let up and allow kids to stay behind and eventually boost them over "The Wall".  If we did that, when they got to the other side, they would see how far behind they were from others their age and not be prepared for the next "Wall" if one comes up.

The only way to get through "The Wall" is to smash it.  The problem is that this comes from within the child.  Sure parents and teachers can motivate the child, but the child has to find some intrinsic reason  to break through to the other side.

I always like to think that the games I do in class are like tools a child can use to bring down "The Wall".  Sadly, I also know that there are kids who just enjoy playing with the tools without ever "wearing them down" by using them to attack "The Wall".

Usually, by 8th grade, the complaints die down.  Again, its not the 8th grade teachers or coursework are any easier, its just that enough kids have gotten through "The Wall".

You may not hit "The Wall" in 7th grade, but you will eventually hit one in your life.

Are we going to ignore "The Wall" and hope it disappears?

As a parent, are you going to ask the teachers to remove "The Wall" for your child or be their biggest coach & cheerleader as they attempt to run "head first" through it?

As a student, are you going to give up and let "The Wall" defeat you or will you defeat it?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Teaching Festivus and Losing Christmas

Yesterday on the half day before the winter break, I taught a lesson on holidays.  We try to summarize what all holidays have in common.  Celebrating holidays seems to be something that is intertwined into the fabric of every culture.  They serve a special purpose, to help us remember an important event or information of our culture and/or just an excuse to bring us together to have fun; to unify us.  Sometimes that unity can be found in such silly things as just playing pranks on someone on April Fools Day.

There are four types of holidays are religious (Easter, Passover), patriotic/nationalistic (4th of July, St. Patricks' Day), secular (Earth Day, Arbor Day), and fun (Halloween, Hoodie-Hoo Day).  And all holidays seem to have practices and traditions.  The fun of the holiday lesson is when we then watch clips on Youtube that combine all the Festivus sections of the Seinfeld episode, The Strike.  For the month before Christmas, I have a foot long dowel wrapped in tinfoil on display in my classroom.  Most wonder what its purpose is.  After watching Seinfeld, they receive their answer.  The students have to identify all the aspects of a holiday that can be discovered about Festivus thorough out the episode.  (The sad thing is when I ask the question, "What did Jerry Seinfeld say was the purpose of Festivus?" and students say, "Who's Jerry Seinfeld?").

I'm hoping my friend Jeff will video tape his family's Festivus celebrations and post it to Youtube so I can show my class a typical Festivus celebration.

Outside of the classroom, I have time to reflect on the importance of holidays more deeply.  In this dark, winter season, it seems like we do need a reminder that there is light that shines.  Christians have their Christmas with the lights on the tree and the Jewish faith Hanukkah, the festival of lights.  The Hindus have Diwali that takes place in the fall, as the days get shorter.  Its not just physical darkness, but the darkness found in evil.  Humans desire that the light of goodness will outshine the darkness.  We see it in our religions, the epic tales we tell, and the hope we clutch on to in the worst tragedies.

Holidays not only serve to remind us, but also a reason to come together and celebrate.  A time to cherish each other and the relationships we have.  A time to let loose, have fun and enjoy life.  Holidays always seem to pull us together.  Even if our families are dysfunctional, at least they are our dysfunctions and add spice to the occasion.

As a person that practices the Christian faith, I love Christmas.  Not just for the presents (both giving and receiving) but the spectacle.  The music, the tree, the lights, even Santa, it all draws me into the reason for the season;  when God came to earth to bring light to the darkness in the person of Jesus.  As Linus Van Pelt responded to Charlie Brown's question, "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?"

 "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'" 

Several friends and I lament every year how the evangelical Christian churches we find ourselves in only do token "Christmassy" things in the month leading up to the day.  Maybe one carol when the congregation sings a week, rarely a sermon on Advent or Christmas on any day other than Christmas Eve.  One of my friends seriously thought about attending Catholic services for the month just before Christmas just to be reminded what season it was.

I have heard, "we don't want to practice the tradition of men", and then the very people who say that are blinded that they are establishing their own "traditions of men".  Holidays serve a purpose, they remind us of something important and unite us.  Can the importance of the traditions supersede the importance of what is being remembered in the hearts of some people?  Absolutely. So can the importance of a great speaker system and audio/visual display in your church.  Or that every bit of a service has to be perfectly orchestrated because for some reason the group of people who are heard quoted to say, "Im not perfect, just forgiven" believe we should be impervious to mistakes in a church service.

I think people need to hear stories over and over.  We so easily forget things and reminders are so important and add depth to what we believe.

I miss watching kids act out the Christmas story.

Christians complain that we don't like having to say or hear "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" while some Christian church circles shut the door on the Christmas season in their own buildings.

Lighting Advent candles at church is a good thing.  Singing traditional Christmas carols is a good thing.  Filling your church with poinsettias, wreaths, and a Christmas tree is a good thing.  It connects us to people who believe like us, on the other side of the world or from the ancient past.  It draws us to remember very important theological points of our faith, that God came to earth to live and rescue people who rebel and forget about Him.  It also serves to unite us together in this dark time and hopefully encourages us to help those who are less fortunate as God helped us.

And that's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parent Teacher Conferences

My annual parent-teacher conferences begin on Monday.  It will be a truncated version of the conference due to the storm.  Parents will only be meeting with their child's homeroom teacher and receive a verbal report of their child in each of their other academic classes.  The parents will not be able to go see a specific teacher during that time (they can always contact them through email or phone).  I have to be honest, it seems more like a glorified progress report than a conference.

If you are going to a parent-teacher conference, here are some tips from the this teacher's perspective (and remember, my teacher views are my own and don't represent all teachers).

1) The younger the grade, the better the conference.  

There is a reason why most schools eliminate conferences in the older grades.  A high school kid can give their parents a better verbal picture of what is going on in their classroom than a 1st grader (assuming their child talks with their parent.  I'm getting into the habit of asking my oldest daughter everyday what she did in nursery school).

Also, since most younger grades are self contained and your child has one teacher and that teacher sees your child all day and only has 20-30 students under their care. They will have deeper and keener information than a middle school or high school teacher.  Please keep this in mind when your child advances grades.  It will be harder for each academic teacher to give the type of presentation of your child that a elementary school teacher can.  Some parents expect elementary school treatment for their middle or high school student.  The playing field has changed and your child is no longer playing on a baseball field with 60 foot bases, they've advanced to the 90 foot field.  Because of this...

2) Ask questions.

As a teacher, I appreciate parents who ask questions. I usually give general comments because I don't know what a parent wants to know. Questions allow me to focus the conference on what the parent wants to know about their child.

3) Take criticism of your child as constructive.

Most teachers are looking to be helpful and at times it can be difficult for us to say the hard things that need to be said about your child (because we understand that you love them and are protective of them as you should be).  I know personally I try to say it in a loving way.  Do not take it as a personal attack, take it for what it is, a way to make your child successful.

(Yes, there may be a few teachers who are jerks and find some kind of sick joy in criticizing your child just as their are a few jerk parents that I have to deal with which leads be to the next point...)

4) Parent Teacher Conferences are not for you to critique the teacher. 

I remember years ago being waylaid by a parent who came in with a list of what she had issues about each teacher's teaching style and methods (and she didn't say them in the most tactful way).  Zero percent of the conference was about her child.  After she was done spewing her complaints, I addressed each point to which she replied, "You don't have to become defensive."

To which I responded, "You come in here to complain about my teaching style and then tell me not to become defensive, as if I should just accept everything you had to say."

That's how the conference ended.  She went and talked to my principal.  I didn't lose my job, I was asked about one of her concerns, but it was quickly dismissed once he heard my explanation.

Contact the teacher beforehand, email, phone don't let it boil over at conferences.  If you really have an issue with a teacher is one thing, to take it upon yourself to be "the self appointed PhD of Better Education Crusader" is quite another.  Another don't do if you are a teacher yourself is say...

5) "I'm a teacher too, and I would..."

If you are a teacher don't EVER use this line.  Remember how much you don't appreciate it when someone says it to you.  I'm going to be honest with you, what goes through my mind when I hear a parent who is a teacher say this is,

"You may be a teacher, but it doesn't mean you're a good one"

which is basically what you are telling me.

6) The teacher's do not request a conference at this time.  

I can't remember if my sister had this box checked off on my niece's conference form a few years back or if she questioned if she go to a conference for her.  Either way, my sister was concerned that by not going (my niece was doing very well in school and her and my brother in law had no concerns) it would send a message to the teachers that they do not care.  My response to my sister was, "Send her homeroom teacher a note telling them you don't require a conference at this time since you know the teachers are doing a fine job allowing her daughter to excel and would just appreciate a note if that changes."

Just my thoughts. Happy Conferencing!