15 February 2015

Chewing Your Battles

Students need nourishment, and they rely on us to provide
time, techniques, and sustenance 
their budding palates can handle
In my quest to include everything as a baby teacher, I made it impossible to keep up with...well, anything. I constantly bit off more than I could chew instructionally speaking. And goodness knows if couldn't chew it with my baby teacher teeth, my poor little students' gums certainly were no match for all of the assessments and activities and "content" I was trying to cram down their throats.

I made it impossible for me to keep up with grades and impossible for them to ever really LEARN anything. If I put it on their plate, they were supposed to magically absorb it, however it is that stuff gets digested. I fed them. It was up to them to eat it, right? But then my paperwork would pile up like dirty dishes as I just kept serving more and more.

The Battlefield
Now I have always been of the Choose-Your-Battles school of pedagogy, but what I haven't always been is careful with the battles I chose. As I reach teacherly adolescence, however, I have started to learn to pick what is important--what is really important--and to cover those battles from every angle I could. No more throwing myself into grandiose unit plans because I can and because it looks like fun to me. Man, when I think of the WEEKS and MONTHS of my life wasted wondering why my idea of fun never really seemed to be fun when it came to execution...

Well, "no more" is a bit optimistic. I mean, I did it again just this school year. I was all gung ho about Film & Lit last semester, and I really kept the precise students I would have in front of me in mind when I was dreaming up the texts we'd use. But still, when they were right there, right in front of me, I was still trying to test new strategies without SEEING the sources of my students' struggle. 

There is, it seems, such a thing as relying too much on theory and research and too little on those young people sharing the same room with you daily.

Hunger and Portion Sizes
"What are you doing?" My principal was all but tapping her foot at me like an impatient parent waiting for the kid to clean up the mud she'd been warned not to track into the house a thousand times. "What are you doing with them that you have got to STOP?" 

I stared around blankly a moment, not seeing any mud.

But then it appeared.

Research says we need to offer students choice, autonomy, a reason to buy in to what we're selling, and I had spent the last two years with the same group of kids, baffled as to why the heaping helpings of this all-powerful panacea didn't seem to be solving anything. I was frustrated, they were frustrated, and we were all still hungry.

As a Spanglish teacher, I have often found ways that my English teaching background could inform and improve my Spanish teaching, but this time it worked in reverse. In that moment of parental principal scolding, my language acquisition training smacked me upside the head. It was their affective filter! If there is anyone out there who honestly believes that second languages are the only discipline where lack of confidence or acceptance can throw up mental blocks, then I have news for you. 

These high school seniors were not gulping down the platefuls of choice I laid out before them because they didn't believe they could do it

That final project to tie everything together in a fun way? They weren't worried about expressing themselves creatively or getting to play instead of write: they were worried they couldn't do a video project successfully. I mean, kudos to them that they felt like they had a good shot at success with another five-page paper--and kudos to me, because that's not how they felt at the beginning of the semester! But all the fun in the world couldn't make them want to do something they couldn't handle.

When my daughter was a baby, I could have smeared the sweet potatoes she loved so much all over a steak, but she could never have swallowed the thing! Likewise my seniors simply didn't see how they could digest that project--at first.

Baby Teeth, Blenders, and Steak Knives
Since my students didn't have the confidence that they could fulfill the expectations I set before them, it fell to me to make them believe what I believed, and to cut their task up into smaller, nonthreatening bites. I knew they had been cutting teeth over the past couple of months--years, even--so I knew they could eat this steak, and that it would do them good. I also knew that they didn't know how to handle a steak knife and that I was not about to keep feeding them formula. Oh sure, formula was great when we were doing little blogging exercises when they were wise fools, but they're bigger and stronger now and need more out of a main course.

I was ready to puree that steak if I had to.

Instead, though, I just cut it for them and set deadlines for different parts of the project, like scripts for each scene, timed rehearsals, recording sessions, and editing.

See, if your students don't know how to handle a knife, there's nothing wrong with you cutting their food for them for a while so they don't choke. Of course, eventually they'll have to handle their own silverware, so be sure to work in chances for them to plan the course of their own long-term projects and collaborations. Don't spend all of your time holding a bottle when you can shop for other healthy input that they can gnaw on themselves. And give them a knife when you're sure they're ready--and you are! (My three-year-old still hands me the bread knives in restaurants, and I'm okay with that.)

So here's what we must remember when we are chewing our battles:
  1. Students need time to develop their academic teeth, so don't give them tasks they're not equipped to handle.
  2. Give students the chance to try new tasks, so their development is not stunted by a lack of variety.
  3. But provide enough support--be it steak knife or blender--to ensure they get what they need from each task.
And always chew your battles wisely.

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