Sunday, June 6, 2010

Double-Dip Feelings

Last week contained the highlight of my teaching year, one of the highlights of my career: the culminating presentation of our yearlong study of Boston Neighborhoods. I knew, even weeks ahead of time, that it was going to be fantastic, unprecedented, memorable. The kids' work was stellar, with vibrant, detailed illustrations and clear, reflective writing. People were going to be blown away.

Honestly, the teaching in the 6 weeks leading up to this presentation was pretty damn good, too. We did draft after draft of their writing, adding powerful words, personal connections, opening sentences to draw the reader in, "connectors" to combine short sentences into longer sentences. And we did draft after draft of their illustrations, meeting in small groups where students provided feedback to each other on successive drafts. Every student did between 4 and 10 drafts of their illustration, and the final products were stunning.

Before the presentation, we tried to reflect with the students. Why did we study our city all year, anyway? Why do you need to know about your community? Why did we do so many drafts of our work? Why did it matter that we did a good job on it?

At first, they struggled with these questions. Why did we do so many drafts? "Because my teacher is crazy about the drafts," wrote Mehki. Why does it matter that your work is good? "Because the teachers told us it had to be." Why did we learn about Boston all year? Blank stares.

But we worked on it more. I thought about what were the right questions to ask. I asked "Why?" a lot of times, pushing their thinking deeper. We made lists of their answers. And by the time Wednesday night came, not only did they have good answers, they had practiced the questions with partners, and when the adult audience walked around and asked them to reflect on their work and how it changed them, they could talk about it.

It was definitely a highlight of my teaching career. It is a kind of teaching I have been striving to reach for a number of years. It's not perfect -- not at all -- but I am getting better each year. People were impressed by the curriculum, the caliber of the work, and the weightiness of the themes our students are talking about. It was real stuff, meaningful, and it touched the kids, their families, and the community members who attended.

Here is some of what my class said they "learned about learning:"
  • Take feedback and continue working, even if you feel upset.
  • Treat your work gently.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Be in control of yourself (have discipline).
  • Be proud to show off your work.
  • Try really hard, because something might be hard for you, but it might come out how you want it.
  • You need to do things over and over again in order to get better at it.
  • Try something first before not doing it.
I came home that night flying high. I couldn't sleep. I woke up early the next morning, my mind racing with ideas to follow up such deep reflection, such powerful work. We would write letters! Design thank-you cards! Write reflective journal entries!

At school I hung their work around the classroom, so it would be reminiscent of the community center where the work was displayed the night before. It looked beautiful. I put student-made signs up outside the room, and their reflections in the hallway. I hung sheets of paper, covered in congratulatory notes and feedback from the previous night, on the white board. It was a space made for celebrating and reflecting.

Within half an hour of my students' arrival, though, things were back to normal. There were no quiet moments of self-reflection, of thanks given to peers (or, God forbid, teachers), of excitement and pride. No, within half an hour, two students had been removed from the room because of defiance and temper tantrums. The other 18 were left wriggling restlessly on the rug, occasionally insulting each other, jumping out of their seats without permission and glaring when asked to sit, and staring fixedly into space instead of paying attention to what anyone else was saying.

It was just how most mornings have been this year with this class: a constant struggle to remain calm (on my part), to maintain order, and to facilitate communication and learning among a group that has a very hard time co-existing in a small space. I began to deflate, coming down gradually, taking deep breaths in an attempt to stay equanimous, perhaps even hold onto some of my feelings of success. Within ten minutes, I gave up.

Earlier this year, my class had a short discussion about mixed feelings, how you can feel more than one thing at a time. Later, my social-worker friend lent me a children's book, Double Dip Feelings, which is about just that. This week was a week of double-dip feelings for me: elation, success, pride, excitement; frustration, exhaustion, hopelessness, apathy.

At the end of a school year, there are many small moments of success to celebrate. The students who made two years of progress in reading in one year. Eighth graders who, during their portfolio presentations, mention learning to read from me in first grade class. Kids who, in tough moments of final presentations and good-byes, are reflective and poised in surprising ways, giving you glimpses and reminders of how far they have come and what your teaching may have meant to them.

"Sometimes we don't know why we're doing this, or if we're accomplishing anything," my principal said at staff meeting on Friday. "And then we have final events like these, and we know exactly why we've been doing it, even though it has taken every last breath in our bodies to do it."

There's the tough part: every last breath in our bodies, every scrap of energy and will-power. Our mental and physical health suffers, our relationships are strained, we regularly disappoint ourselves because we can't do more. It all seems worth it during these moments of success, but how long can one person sustain it? At what price? What is the lifespan of a healthy teaching career?

I'm hoping to extend the life of my classroom career by combining teaching with other pursuits next year. Teaching half time, and exploring bigger ideas during the other half, will hopefully sustain me so I can keep doing the thing that good teachers most need to do: stay in teaching. This week I was sad at the idea of doing less of this work, and then I was relieved. Such high highs and such low lows -- which, really, is probably the definition of teaching.

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