Thursday, August 31, 2023

Teacher, or just Presenter?

This week's column for The Villager:

Sometimes I worry that I’m not a very good teacher.

It’s not that I’m inexperienced or unskilled or lacking in knowledge of my course content and basic ideas on pedagogy, curriculum, and instruction. After thirty years in the classroom, both in public and private schools in the United States and abroad, I am undoubtedly a veteran educator. And as one of the most experienced honors and AP teachers in the English department of one of the nation’s top high schools, I think I can claim to be pretty good at my job.

However, there are times when I wonder whether I am just a talented presenter of information. When a teacher works at a high achieving school in a well-run district with a supportive community and scores of highly motivated students, the distinction of truly exemplary teaching can be more difficult to discern. Granted, in an environment with high expectations and exceptional results, the consumer is no doubt attentive to the product being offered. And that expectation to be excellent in order to maintain a tradition of excellence is a great motivator for an educator.

After many years of successful teaching with positive feedback from students, parents, colleagues, and administrators, I have no doubt that the content and instruction I provide is well received. And in classes that have a national test as a benchmark, I can be pretty confident that the results I am helping students achieve are appreciated by the stakeholders in the game. At our high school’s recent Back to School Night, numerous students from previous years came to see me, and that was one of the more validating feelings an educator can get. When they come back to see you, when they want to simply check in and say hello, you know you’ve connected as a teacher.

However, self reflection is, I believe, one of the most important tasks of any teacher. Effective educators must ask whether the students are achieving because of the instruction, or regardless of it. Engagement is the key. Carol Jago, an esteemed teacher and education researcher, has long noted that there is a difference between a fun classroom and an engaging one. In an engaging classroom, learning will happen. In a fun one, that’s not necessarily the case. At the high school and college level, especially among high achieving students, it can be all too easy to lapse into the role of lecturer. And, while in the era of TED Talks, engaging presenters can be seen as impressive and engaging, the presenting of information is not actual teaching.

As I’ve noted before, I am an English teacher, but I don’t like to think that I simply teach English. I teach kids. I teach the skills of English to kids. But the students are the objective – teaching them. I teach them how to read, write, and think. There is a huge difference between teaching a subject and simply assigning material. Being a responsive educator is about teaching the kids in front of us, as opposed to simply talking about our subject. In planning lessons, teachers are tasked with three important questions: What do we want them to know? How will we know when they know it? What will we do when they don’t?

That last question is where many educators fall short. What do we do when the students fall short of our goals? While a student's education ultimately resides with them and their individual efforts, effective educators do not simply present the information and hope for the best. It’s when students struggle that true educating, the art of pedagogy, comes into play. Cris Tovani, the author of “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It,’ has noted the importance of continuing to actually teach the skills of reading throughout school. Sadly, when many kids struggle to discern information from text, they are told to just read it again more carefully.

There are two key models for education – the Sage on the Stage versus the Guide on the Side. While I believe strongly in direct instruction and the idea of the teacher being the expert in the room, I also know that simply standing in front of the classroom and presenting information is not necessarily effective teaching. As the old teacher adage goes, school is too often a place where children go to watch adults work. If they just sit and listen to information, research suggests they won’t actually learn much.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A Mathematician’s Lament

In a column for Education Week, writer and teacher Larry Ferlazzo assembled a series of essays promoting the idea of “Art in Every Class.” As an educator, writer, artist, and art aficionado, I was intrigued by that idea.

Art plays a significant role in children’s brain development, and it can be an engaging way to connect students with new content. I’ve used various forms of art in my high school English classes for years. From writing an analysis of a painting to demonstrating knowledge of a subject by crafting sketch notes instead of an essay, my students benefit from art as part of their learning. I’ve even asked my students to do an interpretive dance of a piece of literature.

Of course, many people inevitably wonder how visual arts apply to STEM subjects. Sure it can be relevant and valuable to bring art into humanities classes, which are generally more focused on right-brain creative thinking, allowing for open interpretations. But how about math and science, especially subjects like algebra or physics? With the exception of geometry, most people would not consider math to be a remotely artsy subject. Mathematician and professor Paul Lockhart, however, disagrees.

Lockhart laments the state of mathematics education in America because it fails to promote the beautiful art of math. In 2002, he first published a twenty-five page essay which he called “A Mathematician’s Lament,” and it became the talk of the math world in higher education when it was published on the blog for the Mathematical Association of America. A passionate math student, Lockhart had dropped out of college when he became bored and disillusioned by the way math was studied and taught. In pursuing his own math research, he was later accepted by Columbia University where he earned his Ph.D.

Lockhart’s criticism of math education is not unusual. USA Today recently reported that a majority of American parents are not happy with how math is taught in their children’s schools. That’s not surprising, as national and international test results often suggest American kids struggle. More than 30% of Americans report not liking math and believing math is a natural skill people are either good at or not. Of course, the counter is that vast majorities of Americans report liking math in school. The problem may be in the nature of the instruction geared toward assessments and basic computation, rather than an emphasis on discovery and creative thinking.

Lockhart’s lament emphasizes that distinction. He explains how "The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such." In Lockhart’s world, math is a beautiful exploration of relationships, not a sequential drilling of definitions, formulas, and equations in isolation. The puzzling nature of math can and should be one of the key engagement strategies. Kids love puzzles and riddles and games, and a focus on the fun in those challenges is one way Lockhart encourages a return to joy and discovery in the math classroom.

Of course, the problem for teachers is pressure that mistakenly leaves little time for fun. In commentary for US News & World Reports, Elie Vanesky attempts to explain why “The United States is so Bad at Math.” And, to be honest that assumption is not an entirely accurate statement. Vanesky does not intend to bash teachers for poor instruction. Instead, he challenges the very nature of the system that hems teachers into a singular focus on standardized tests. Rather than looking at test scores and criticizing teachers for failing to teach, he wants “to be very clear that the problem is not with our teachers. The problem is with the way math must be taught in school because of the emphasis on the very exams on which students underperform.”

As an English teacher, I might be inclined to say I don’t like math. But actually I do – I read about it all the time. Books like “When Godel Walked with Einstein,” a collection of essays on math, and “How Not to Be Wrong: the Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg fascinate me, and I love reading about math’s practical relevance. Many people enjoy television shows like NUMB3RS or movies like Hidden Figures because the math is inherently intriguing and enlightening. And it is truly an art form. Thinking of it that way could be the key to changing American’s attitudes toward math class.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Life Skills 101

I've written on this subject before. This week's topic for my Villager column is the idea of life skills as a high school class.

“We need a mandatory class in high school for all students that teaches basic finance and life skills.”

In my thirty years as an educator, I’ve heard many suggestions from people outside education about what “schools should really be doing.” Ideas range from personal finance to basic household maintenance to interpersonal communication and letter writing. It surprises me how many people are upset that “kids today can’t change a tire or balance their checkbook anymore.” I smile and nod politely as I struggle to remember where my checkbook even is or whether I’ve changed a tire since I was about sixteen.

Sometimes these concerns rise to the legislative and policy-making level, as in Oklahoma which last year proposed a law requiring all high schools to teach a class called “Adulting 101.” Yes, the term adult has now become a verb, and apparently there’s a curriculum that will teach everything a person needs to do to become a licensed practicing adult. The proposed class covered all manner of useful life skills from finance to home repair, and it pledged to teach young people all the soft skills they will need to be successful adults.

Granted, there is value in teaching the basics of personal finance, especially for young people going off to college or entering the workforce. My daughter was genuinely shocked when we received the long-term payments for her college loan offer recently. “How is it even possible?” she reasonably wondered, that people end up paying so much in interest to borrow money. And she’s an honors student who has taken AP micro and macro economics. When the theoretical becomes personal, and young people face the prospect of incurring five and six-figure debt by the time they’re twenty-years old, the intricacies of high finance become all too real.

That said, no high school class will magically prepare students for all the challenges they will face in their adult lives. Schools could devote a semester or a year to teach teenagers about variable interest rates and escrow, about compound interest and mortgage deductions, about all the byzantine intricacies of their credit card agreements. But that would be as big a waste of time as teaching all kids to change a tire or install a dishwasher. In reality, no one will remember those details years later, any more than they remember the plot of the Great Gatsby, the dates of major battles in all of America’s wars, or the countless formulas from algebra and physics class. When a consumer takes out a loan to buy a house or a car, they want to know and understand one thing – what’s the monthly payment.

People believe students need a financial literacy class so they can understand the economy and make wise decisions about credit and interest rates and risk. Yet, wasn’t the housing and subprime crash of 2008 fueled by people who knew finance better than anyone? They still made bad decisions. Studying government for a semester doesn't make people better citizens, nor does a couple years of world language make people fluent. And no one learns to change their oil anymore because they don’t need to. In fact, with computerized cars and hybrid-electric models, it’s almost impossible for car owners to tinker with the engine anymore.

For as long as schools have existed, students have inevitably asked, “When am I going to use this?” For most content, the answer is likely never. School is not simply a utilitarian training course of useful skills that barely require a twenty-minute tutorial, much less a semester class. Few of us ever use much of the information we encountered in twelve years of public school. But we all use the well-developed brains and temperaments that were cultivated during the long process of growing up and going to school.

A classical liberal arts education, upon which modern school systems are grounded, is in fact Life 101. It’s about working with people, meeting responsibilities, opening the mind to new ideas, learning foundational theories and skills. Requiring a class like “Life 101” to teach check balancing and tire changing is based on the naive belief that education is simply utilitarian, practical, and indelible. And expecting that once we learn something we never forget it is completely unrealistic. So, the next time someone suggests young people need a class in Life Skills 101, remind them we already have one. It’s called the K12 education system and simply growing up.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Advice for College Freshmen

In my last column of May, as the school year wrapped up and I prepared to take a writing break, I shared my thoughts about the Class of 2023, a group I sincerely think of as “just really good kids.” This week, as summer vacation fades in the rearview mirror, and my wife and I prepare to send our second child off to college, I want to share some thoughts for those young people with their lives out in front of them.

In many high school graduation speeches, there is always a message about college being the time of freedom to explore and figure out who you are. A few years ago, Austin Kleon, artist and author of the cleverly titled Steal Like an Artist, wrote a message to graduates, reminding them that college is filled with that freedom and opportunity, but it comes with a caveat. “The classroom,” he wisely observed, “is a wonderful, but also fairly artificial, place: Your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas.” Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.

The college years are wonderfully rich times of learning and development. And it’s important to understand that not all of it, or even most of it, happens in the classroom. Additionally, college is not simply an internship or job training. In fact, for most students, a bachelor degree is decidedly not job training. Trust me, few companies are out there anxiously waiting for a twenty-two-year-old college graduate to come in and let them know how the work is done. Instead, employers want to know you earned a degree and have a credential that verifies you have the ability to do the work, whatever they assign you.

Shortly after you start working, you will discover the difference between the classroom and the workplace. Kleon goes on to remind students that “Soon after you leave college, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.” As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.” So, while in college, embrace the freedom, stretch your mind, and step outside of your comfort zone.

In a final bit of advice from Kleon, “Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts,” and embrace all the experiences available. Participate in theater if you never stepped on stage in high school, or enroll in intramural sports of some kind if you didn’t play before. Stay active, and make sure you eat some vegetables regularly. Spend time on the quad, playing frisbee and hacky sack. Learn to juggle or paint or sing. If your university is large enough, unofficially audit a class or two in something you’d never study or do. By that I mean, just sit in on a class lecture and learn something new.

By all means go to your college football and basketball games if they have teams and you enjoy sports, or even if you don’t. But also consider losing your voice cheering on the swim team. Take the time to go crazy with friends cheering on athletes in a tennis match or a gymnastics meet. In fact, try to see every team once.

Live on campus, and get a part time job while you’re in school. Find your spot to study on campus, and build a routine around that important part of the college experience. Whether it’s a coffee shop, some back corner of the library, or an academic building’s common room. Visit your professors during office hours. And try to do it before you need last minute help. And, if possible, study abroad for a semester. I have expressed this idea to my students for years – get out of your comfort zone, and by that I mean the country you call home.

Finally, remember that while these years are a time of freedom and opportunity, your time in college is not “the best days of your life.” I don’t share the ridiculous belief that college is the peak – what a depressing message for an eighteen-year-old. That said, it is a new beginning. Appreciate all the moments, including the stress of classes, the solitude of being on your own, the uncertainty of new friends.

Oh, and call your parents every once in a while. Not when you need something. Just because.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Grecian Dreams – Thirty Years Later

I've been on a bit of a hiatus since May, doing some traveling and writing and relaxing. This is my first column for The Villager since then.

Our memories were hazy as we stepped off the ferry in Parikia, the port city on the isle of Paros in the heart of the Aegean. It had been thirty years since my wife and I walked down a similar ramp amidst a group of travelers scanning the lot for taxis, cafes, or just a place to stretch. As we made our way past the windmill in the roundabout and headed toward the town center, we serenely drifted back into our past, all the while holding hands with our daughter’s future.

The impetus for our summer trip to Greece started for our daughter back in middle school when she and a friend began planning their European trip for the summer after senior year. As seven years flew by, and they entered the last year of high school, the plan narrowed to the Greek isles, and soon we were researching plans to rent a house, serving as home base for the girls to island hop. And, then, we were back in Greece, thirty years after our first trip.

In the summer of 1992, my wife and I moved abroad following our college graduation and spent years working and traveling. Living in southeast Asia, we knew many young expats who regularly headed to the beaches of Thailand or the Philippines or Indonesia. But during a lull between two work contracts, we instead headed west to Europe and Paros, which we heard was “where the Greeks vacation.” Initially planning to island hop, we rented a small villa on Paros fifty feet from the beach and stayed a month.

This summer, as in 1993, we began with a couple days in Athens. The city is noticeably different, following the 2004 Olympics which greatly extended the infrastructure. Yet it’s still a quaint European city filled with delightful cafes, inviting restaurants and bakeries, endless galleries and shops. As I stood one evening on our balcony, looking at the Parthenon rising from the Acropolis, I was struck again with the historical magic. I then grinned, glancing down on the Plaka, wondering if it was the same place where we had divine moussaka while also getting scammed as we struggled to mentally convert our drachmas to dollars.

These days, the euro makes things much easier, and once we reached Paros we were comfortably home again. Paros is centrally located and perfect for island hopping, but we spent weeks there before and chose to again. With more than forty named beaches, there was more than enough to keep us busy, though relaxing was the goal. This time we stayed outside the fishing village of Naoussa where our host Kariakos has several villas surrounded by his vineyard. He produces a wonderful boutique Greek white wine, light and refreshing with hints of lemony citrus and mellow melon accents, and gifted us a bottle.

The gem of the trip came at Golden Beach, near the village of Drios where we’d lived. Curiously walking along the coast, I spotted a vaguely familiar villa. As I walked toward it, a voice came from behind me. “Can I help you?” A young man, mid-twenties, had come from the restaurant. I hesitated, then turned around. “Hi, I, uh, think I rented this place thirty years ago.” He nods, as I go on. “The owner’s name was “George?” A huge smile comes across his face, as he places his hand over his heart. “That was my father! “Come, come inside.”

As we chat I realize, Paros thirty years later is really me thirty years later. A return to Paros is a return to myself as I sat on the cusp of becoming the person I would be. This time, sitting in a cafe as my daughter logged on to her university website to schedule fall classes, I rested in a sense of contentment. As I’m embraced by my past, she’s getting ready to move on with her future. It’s with fond nostalgia that I listen to my daughter’s desire to travel and live internationally, and I couldn’t imagine a better plan.

On our last day, as we spent an evening picnicking on the beach and watching the sun melt into the Aegean, I think Paros has given us again a serene reminder of what life really is. Vacation at times can feel like real life, an escape from the dailiness that distracts us from who we really are.

It won’t be another thirty years before we return to our Grecian dreams.