Saturday, October 19, 2013

Highly Effective Teaching and the Circus

Our small learning community group was discussing the Danielson Framework.  What a surprise. That's all we ever do.  The facilitator (or teacher leader as it says on our table of organization)  was making a pitch for having an honest, worthwhile discussion, not an easy thing to accomplish in any situation but a when the members feel bamboozled into being there....

 Last year joining our small learning community group had no loopholes, so there were about thirty members.  This year there are all sorts of loopholes, including the one that says those who have to do Special Education paperwork don't have to join one- unless of course -you're me.

I have lots of special education paperwork, but I am a teacher leader so somehow I have to be in one. (If that sounds impressive, just remember that the only result  I notice is I lose the period I am supposed to have to do all that paperwork- I don't lose having to do the paperwork I am still responsible for it.)

And I get to make stupid pleas for having honest, worthwhile discussions.

One member (whose real name is so appropriate for symbolic use as a substitute metaphor- that I cannot come up with a better replacement) suggested it was not fair that some people got to do hall and lunch duty while we have to sit around and discuss our teaching practice.

I have a student in the hospital awaiting a liver transplant.  She is sixteen years old.
Is that fair?
Life is not fair.
I do not say that.

I press on.

We examine the examples of highly effective classrooms in regard to behavior practices.
Classroom interactions between the teacher and students are highly respectful, relfecting genuine warmth, caring and sesitivity to the students as individuals.  Students exhibit respect for the teacher and contribute to high levels of civility among all members of the class - Danielson 

I got to thinking if I ever got there in a thirty year career.

Once long ago in a place far away I taught a grade school class. The students were all children of recent immigrants with serious enough learning disabilities to be placed in a self contained special education program. (Currently standards have changed and students with similar profiles probably would be in an inclusion program- but whether or not that's a good thing is story for another day.)

There was a chemistry to that class that made it special. I got assigned jury duty and met a man who sponsored the program that gave free tickets for the circus to handicapped children. I had never been able to obtain those tickets before- my students just didn't appear “sad” enough- but there was a benefit from sitting -unselected- in the jury pool for three days.

Our school bus got stuck in a Manhattan traffic jam on 34th Street and 5th Avenue. Julian leaned forward and explained to me that we could walk to Madison Square Garden in a few minutes. Julian was ten, how he knew that- I didn't I want to know but I am not above taking advice from ten year olds. We arranged our pickup and walked west. I stood on Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street directly across from the Garden and asked a cop how to enter. I had a complicated set of directions that explicitly explained where we should line up – but we saw no lines on Seventh Avenue.

The cop asked me if I had arrived from Iowa just that day (along with ten -ten year olds with the variation of skin tones only a class made up of recent world-wide immigrants could possess). The entrance to the Garden was directly across. We held hands, crossed the avenue, rode the elevator up and were suddenly ringside. Madison Square Garden was empty. The circus people took the kids on elephant rides around the ring.

The arena filled slowly throughout the next two hours. I found out later, that the intricately detailed instructions- the cop had me ignore- created long lines along Eighth Avenue and Madison Square Garden was filled at the rate one would expect it would take to process ten thousand “handicapped” children- one school bus at a time.

What kind of teacher takes ten special education kids off a school bus in the middle of a Manhattan traffic jam(on the advice of a ten year old)?

Maybe one who thinks the classroom interactions between the teacher and students are highly respectful, reflecting genuine warmth, caring and sensitivity to the students as individuals..

Or maybe one who is just crazy.

For at least one moment in my life I really trusted the class community relationship. And it paid off- in elephant rides.

Will I ever have that again? There are moments I think it is possible- like Thursday morning when I was teaching the distance formula to some students with less than stellar reputations for academic and social performance. All hell was breaking out in the hallway, screaming, cursing, security whistles, but we continued to work even as the crashing against the wall shook the green board we precariously perch on a desk, to use as a projector screen. Nobody would have video-taped that moment to post on the practices of highly effective teachers website. But I count it as a victory.

I asked our skeptical small learning community how often they felt they reached the point where the atmosphere of their classes reflect the one described in the framework.

Almost all, claimed to be at that point currently.

Me- I wish I was always there, but I can only know I reached that level once, a long time ago when I sat ring-side watching the elephants trot my students around the circus ring.

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