Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chicken Noodle Soup

A man's voice is booming from my CD player as I sit this Tuesday morning putting the final touches on my lesson. Layered over it are the soft cajolings of a woman encouraging me to "let it rain and clear it out."

I'm not sure of the name of the song, but it's inspired many of my female students to enter my room and dance. It's a dedication and energy I wish to tap in to when I'm teaching.

They flock in and out of the room, some watching, some participating, everyone wanting to be a part of the experience. How do you get this kind of excitement and thought about learning?

I want the best way to subvert this culture. Yes, technology is where they live, but most of my students use technology as a means to get to their real homes - their music.

In the five minutes of writing this post, the number of students has gone from 10 to 20. They are 100% engaged in what is going on.

The bell has rung. The experience is over.

Lightning in a bottle.

More later.

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Marathon Return

The post below was originally written Monday, Oct. 23, 2006.

A race well run. I’m laying on the floor outside Gate 18 in Terminal 5 of O’Hare International Airport and I’m dreading what will happen in 20 minutes when I have to get back to my feet and begin boarding. If ever you find yourself spending major amounts of time in Terminal 5, bring food. The options once one passes through security are scant to say the best. It has been a busy weekend full of family, friends and running. Though it was not a PR in terms of time, this completion of the Chicago Marathon was one of my favorites. It elicited nowhere near the same emotional reaction from that sacred place at a runner’s core from whence emotion springs at the finish line and other major checkpoints, but it was still preferred.This year, for the first time, I was running a marathon not just with someone I knew, but with someone I’m related to. I’m unspeakably proud of my sister Rachel who has now completed 2 marathons before the age of 17. The world should expect great things from her. Running the first 10 miles along side Rachel will be a memory I treasure forever. She is tremendous. Knowing some of my closest friends, Teacher Dunda, Katy and Natalie were sharing the course gave the race a since of completion I’d not known before.

Hobbling with Natalie, Dunda and Katy to lunch today was a comical sight. Almost as comical, I would imagine, as the site of Dunda, Natalie and I making it to our gate.

In two weeks, I run again. For the first time, I’ll be trying my legs at the ING New York City Marathon. I’ll be covering the course with thousands of others, but I’ll also be covering it alone.

I’ll have no sister beside me for the first ten miles. It will be the city and it will be me.
We were speaking at lunch of the feeling that one can accomplish anything after running a marathon. Soon, I will find out if that anything includes another marathon. As with my first race, the goal is to finish – to know that I’ve pushed myself further and farther than I ever knew I could.
The metaphor is carrying over into the classroom. I was telling my friend Rachel the other day that I feel I’m back on my game as a teacher. The past few years have been stuffed to capacity with trainings and seminars and anything else that falls under the guise of professional development. It wasn’t until spending time with the Freedom Writers and Erin as well as running the marathon that it all fell in to place. Rather than using the tools I’ve been given to teach someone else’s way, I’ve got to find a way to re-focus on what it is that makes my classroom unique and use these new tools to improve upon that. You don’t build because you have the tools; you have the tools because you want to build. Tomorrow, it’s back to the workshop.
More later.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Freedom Writers Return

I suppose I'll eventually return to a halfway witty post title, but I'm going with what's on my mind at the moment. My midnight return played havoc with my waking this morning. My head was swimming with everything from the weekend.

I needed some sort of FW detox. It's nice to be back in the classroom. So much to do. I've got to pace myself.

I woke this morning to an e-mail from Principal Steve. He's been reading the blog and had this to say:

Your most difficult battle could be convincing "old codgers" like me that we need to reexamine our belief systems when dealing with students in the domain of discipline (sounds as if you may have had a 'philosophy-changing moment" in this regard).  Having been around the block a time or two I think I know something and not so sure we don't have some anecdotal and data proof to back it up.  High expectations, a relationship-based approach and a gradual shift to the center is a recipe for post graduate success for our kids.  I mean our students will have to function in society, won't they?

I'm in agreement with what he has to say about high expectations and a relationship-based approach to teaching. The thing is, we can't just worry about the relationship between the teacher and student, we must also be agents of change for building relationships between students.

I don't know that I've had a philosophy-changing moment, more of a philosophy empowering moment. I'm going back to the essay I wrote at the end of my time in university. My "Why I Want to Teach" essay. Though my understanding of the working of a classroom and the daily struggle for relevance is refined and evolved, my target is the same. My core values haven't changed.

On the ride to the airport yesterday, I wrote this:

Andy Hargreaves talks about the fact that people rarely give up who they are all at once. It is something that happens piece by piece. With that mellowing process, educators become ENRONS of public education. I saw that happening; I saw myself slowly giving in to the pressures of a methodology of pedagogy that is not my own. My kids have missed out because they have been moving targets in a war of educational assimilation. It is not "standardized" thinkers who become heroes.

More later.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

More Freedom Writing

What an amazingly cohesive unit we 16 have become in such a short period of time. Meeting the actual Freedom Writers and getting to know them is a tremendous experience.

Friday and Saturday, we've been going through activities to help engage and enlighten our students. There are things being said and done that truly hit my head and heart with massive impact. Not only is this experience rejuvenating, it's challenging as well. I am being reminded of why I became an educator. I am reviving the passion for using English and literature to reach my students and help them to learn to shape their lives and take them in new directions.

I feel like I'm another version of the other Freedom Teachers I've met. We are in sync. We are starving to reach our children, to feast on their success.

We dug deeper today and experienced things we want our students to experience.

In one activity, a role play, we looked at what it might be for a class to play out a talk show using the characters in one of the Freedom Writers Diary entries. I was chosen to play the Freedom Writer. It was a tough job. This FW was a witness of a gang murder, the murder was done "for" the FW. The FW had to decide whether they wanted to lie and protect a fellow gang member or tell the truth and sentence an innocent man from a rival gang to life in prison.

Something in me connected with those students I see sitting in conferences or discipline situations - those students who are forced to listen as they are talked at or about and then asked what they think. I got angrier and angrier as I put myself in this FW's place. Trying to find something to say that would make everything ok, that would take weight off my shoulders and get someone to listen, to see me.

It was a dark place that I have seldom gone to.

A powerful experience, it woke me up to the need for more advocacy of our students than admonition of our students. To think that they have the answers to how to turn themselves around but are merely choosing not too is foolish. It is the type of ignorance good teachers got into this profession to erase.

I talk to my students constantly about perspective and why they think other people might be doing things. Not enough do we put ourselves, really put ourselves, in their position. We know their lives are frightening in many cases, but then we convince ourselves that we understand that and know what is right.

Easily, I sound say I want to do what Erin Gruwell did. I would be proud and honored to have that kind of success. I must fight against the powerful draw of statements. Her path was hers. Mine is my own. I can take strength from what she has experienced, I can adopt and adapt her methods, I can open my heart and my life completely to my students, but I must remember my path is my own.

If the greatness my students accomplish is different, then that is fantastic. We are each meant to follow our own passion and though it will have the same shine, it may not take the same shape.

More later.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Freedom Writers Day 1

Well, I started out today in Sarasota, Florida, flew to Charlotte, NC, got on another plane (delayed 40 minutes) and now I’m in Long Beach, CA.
Fay of the Freedom Writers Foundation picked me up from LAX with Heather from OK City in tow. I was supposed to arrive first, but the delay put a kink in those plans. The trip from the airport to the hotel was great. Both Fay and Heather have such a great energy, not that I wouldn’t expect that to be the case. I have a sneeking suspicion that this is going to be weekended of kindred spirits.
I’m sharing my hotel room with another teacher. He wasn’t here when I showed up, but just popped in for a bit. His name’s Darwin and he and his colleagues are from Toronto. I’ll need Google Maps to decide which of us has traveled the farthest to get here.
We’re due down in the lobby in 20 minutes, so I should get myself prepared. I gave my schedule printout to Principal Steve before I left, so I have only a cusory familiarity with what we’ve got going tonight. I do know that activities are packed in to these four days. I can’t wait to get started.

More later.

It's later. What a fantastic group. When all of the delays and flight re-routes are taken care of, we will be 16 teachers strong. Tonight was a brief bit of housekeeping and laying out of the itinerary. I've got to say, I love these people. One of the things I imagined tonight during dinner was what it would look like if all of us worked together in the same school. Unfair to our home schools, but amazing for our students.

We met two of the freedom writers tonight. Well, two of them were here. Sonia and I go way back (lol). Honestly, I can't imagine a better group of people. One of the things I noticed while people were introducing things was the high percentage of people who said they were in the profession for fewer than 10 years but felt as though tteachinge teching for 25 or longer.

That, to me, is one of the most important pieces of being here. After just one quarter of the year, I know I need to sharpen the saw (thank you Stephen Covey). Tomorrow, the real work begins. I cannot wait. I want to package all of these people and bring them back.

I also want to sneak all of my Phoenix counterparts in to the workshop.

Before signing off, I tell you to watch the video below. The Freedom Writers trailer went live on YouTube. It's pretty hard core. I tell you this that Erin is not nearly as rough in real life.

Darwin sends a special shout out and would like to let everyone know he's a self-described "Chinese George Clooney." I'll have to get some pics for Flickr.

More later.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Thank You Google Maps

Some students were in my room this afternoon during lunch using my laptops. One student was using the USA Track & Field website to map out a route he would be running this weekend. Another student, Jose, was sitting next to him and looking to find his house.

"Jose," I said, "see if you can find your town in Mexico."

He got this look on his face, this, wonder struck look.

"Oh, yeah," he said, "I never thought about doing that."

So, he went to the general Google maps page and zoomed in on Texas.

"Now, where is the Rio Grande," he said.

He found the river, but was a little upset that it was so long.

I suggest he do a search for a town name he remembered. He googled Eagle Pass, TX and the excitement increased.

"Here's the church we used to go to."

"Here's the place where my mom's house used to be."

"Here's where we would go to the flea market."

"Here's where we would cross over."

"Here's where a border patrol agent shot a lady while she was crossing."

I asked how long it had been since he had visited - 6 years.

No lesson I could have created on reading maps or autobiography could have rivaled what took place this afternoon. A site I use all the time to get directions or find a new running store did more than that today. It helped me to connect with one of my students. It helped him visit home.

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