Storm Fronts and Warnings

My classroom felt like upstate, New York November weather. For those familiar with this region of the country and its violent shifts in weather–one day in the 60s and the next in the 30s, or the skies the color of prison walls, the trees drained of their Splendid October color, the grass turning to a limipid yellow, the shift to shadowy mornings and coal black afternoons, quick setting nights–can understand the weight our climate places on the existential scale.

A public school classroom, my classroom, has felt much the same. Kids sleepy, eye-rolling, and derisive. You could see a storm front building in, a clear line of air between my place in the room and theirs, a scar of frayed clouds hanging between us. All of us just begging for a fire alarm to provide some reprieve from looking at one another. For me questions act as a great barometer of environment. Questions say that the material is approprite to challenge, gripping enough that kids get forced to care, and engaging that they want to understand. This week there hasn’t been a question about content, material, approach or inquiry…questions have been about grades and assignments due at the end of the quarter. Questions have been about making bargains and deals. Questions have been about when something is due. The storm front is stalled–dank, clammy, queesy.

It would be easy to say, that it’s the change in time. We gained an hour but the body clock is adjusting. I blame it, most of the time, on school culture in both the microculture of my school and the macroculture of the present state of public schools–their emphasis on testing. The common complaint, “There’s no joy in learning,” or “There’s no fire in teaching.”

In one class, we looked at mentor texts for information based writing. Texts about college preparation. We looked at a student model and graded it on a rubric. In another class, we prepped for a paper with class discussion that devolved into, “I don’t think this book is any good so why did you give it to us to read.”

I’ll perseverate about this week. I’ll nightmare about it. I plan new ways to do this differently next year. I’ll create new materials for next week to sharpen the approach. I’ll put a new costume on next week, adopt a new persona to catch and hook them.

And to that point, there are probably those in the audience who say, “Find a way to connect,” or “Maybe you need to scaffold it better,” or “Give them the purpose, lay out the objectives,” or even worse…play a game, give them choice, use some technology. For those who know enough about my instructional practice will know how grounded it is in all these things. I’m sensitive enough as a teacher to know when the lesson is either no good or not work or both. The mark of an experienced teacher is not necessarily years, although that helps, but instead, figuring out how to cover up the mistakes.

So, it was the kind of week where despite best efforts, experience, knowledge, reasearch, preparation, practice, adjustment for the rudimentary talents and abilities of adolescents, when all should have worked well, it didn’t.

What do you do when the weather is lousy? Here in upstate, people will wait five minutes for the weather to change. However, the weather metaphor is all wrong. It means that teaching is fickel andpredictable. Is it? Maybe it should work the other way–the weather is like teaching: cyclical, controlled, powerful.

Maybe it is both, neither, all, and maybe it’s time to leave the upstate and find new patterns.

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