Thursday, September 10, 2009

Back-to-school business

Today as I was visiting two buildings, one elementary and one middle school, it struck me how much teachers build on the work of each other and how profoundly that can help students.

I walked into Paul and Sheila Wellstone at lunch time. There is no better time to witness the muscle that goes into the work of teaching than to visit a building at lunchtime. Lessons pour out of every corner: five teachers leaving the lunch room teaching each class of students sequencing, taking turns, and respect simultaneously and in Spanish, another three teachers are bringing their classes to the lunchroom while walking backwards and teaching the same lessons, and in adjacent classrooms teachers are teaching students how to focus on the lesson in the room rather than the classes walking by outside their doors.

That sequencing will come in handy during reading lessons, taking turns while teaching patterns, and respect absolutely everywhere it can. The focusing and routines they are learning these first days of school will be built on each year after that, which was entirely evident when I walked through some classes later today at Washington Technology Magnet. One classroom had students working in small groups. When I approached them to ask what they were doing they rattled off exactly what their small group work was, in the order it was to be done. They explained their complex math problem to me, explained what they had to do once they solved it and then explained how they were going to explain it with the materials they had. Sequencing.

Another room I walked into was setting up expectations for the year by completing a T-graph with “My Job” (for the teacher) and “Your Job” (for the students). A great lesson to not only establish routines and expectations for the year, but to infuse the language of career and responsibility in a very relevant way into their vocabulary. The teacher shared, then students shared, the teacher shared and then students shared again. Taking turns.

I walked into another classroom, jam-packed with students—not a desk or square inch of floor space to spare—and the teacher ushered me to the front after finishing his explanation of what he wanted students to do for the last 5 minutes of class. As he and I spoke quietly and surveyed his classroom of students everyone was working right up to the bell. Respect and focus.

These teachers and these classroom experiences were not accidental. Our teachers know the importance of creating the right classroom climate and establishing routines right away. Today, I had the privilege of seeing how it all comes together to benefit student learning in the long run. The expectations set at each grade level, are set for the next grade or class, too.

It’s clear that our teachers intend to make it a great year for our students. I am once again humbled by their work.

Friday, September 4, 2009

All in a day's work

Questioning the motivation of reaching out to students. Reviled for wanting to spend time with them at all when there’s more Important work to be done. Given no credit for offering any inspiration and no hope of anything getting Accomplished by your work. Suspected of merely wasting time. Assuming that nothing Productive will come of it. Skeptical because there is no way to Measure the impact. With all of the significant ways to spend your time, why would anyone with talent and leadership skills spend it with kids?

Criticism of President Obama? Only in the last week, but this is the world teachers have lived in for quite a while. Yet we begin another school year with teachers well practiced in how to tune out the white noise of irrelevant critics or citywide commotion and focus on what matters: students learning. In St. Paul we just spent another workshop week getting ready in district-wide meetings, with small groups of our colleagues and independently working on lessons, only this time we face a rather normal first week of school with children, so if you would, please pardon us for not getting our collective noses out of joint around a little pep talk intended to be delivered to our students for a few minutes on Tuesday.

It was a different story this time last year because St. Paul, Minnesota was bracing for the Republican National Convention. A super majority of our bus routes had to be altered for the whole week. Teachers were trying to track down rumors of high school students planning protests. Our kindergartners stayed home two extra days (not because we were making them protest to the best of my knowledge, it was in case the bus routes got too long). Everyone was scrambling to find or share curriculum. A myriad of calls came to the union with hypothetical questions, but above all else, the over-riding attitude was “How do we make this work for our students?” by everyone.

This time last year I was at a staff meeting at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School, barely a few blocks from the site of the Republican National Convention and I had some members of my union ask me "What if President Bush wants to do a photo op at our school?"

I said, "We'll make sure he can because he's the President of the United States and it will be an experience that your students will remember for the rest of their lives." Every last teacher agreed that it would be an experience for their students that they would not pass up. They went on to say that maybe even Senator Norm Coleman would want to stop by since he used to have his staff tutor there when he was mayor of St. Paul.

Had any of it happened, it would've been extremely cool because Wellstone Elementary is the one St. Paul school his dad, President George H. W. Bush, had visited when he was president. Back then it was called Saturn-School of Tomorrow, or something similarly Jetson-y and hopeful of the 21st Century; however no school visits ever happened by any Republicans anywhere in the city.

This time last year it was also the first week of school for our students, with all the garden-variety, first-week-of-school technicalities, glitches, blessings, surprises, accidents, and sunrise-like expectations that a new year always brings. St. Paul Public Schools was, perhaps, the most inconvenienced school district in the nation, yet we all carried an attitude of making this work for our students. That is probably a huge reason it did. Many teachers capitalized on it like the once-in-a-lifetime teachable moment that it was. There was never a massive outcry from the community or a similar great gnashing of teeth that we were using the Republican National Convention to teach our students.

Some things MUST transcend politics.

Again, please pardon St. Paul if we treat this like one more teachable moment in the lives of our students. Our teachers are well-versed in tuning out the fracas and our community can handle it.

Oh, and welcome to our profession, President Obama. Speak even if your voice shakes. We do.