Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Second Chance?

I would be the first to admit that I was probably not the most enjoyable student to have in class. I was probably a hand full for most of my teachers. I remember once I decided to give a substitute teacher a rough time so I started coughing. I was in high school and I coughed so much for this poor sub that finally he looked at me and told me to take the rest of the period off. I wasn't going to get in trouble but I wasn't going to have to stay in class either.

Despite my behavior there were times when I decided to behave better. For example, I vividly remember a conversation with my fourth grade teacher in which he asked me why I consistently misbehaved. I answered that I wanted the other students to think that I was cool. He explained that there were other students in the class who had a lot of friends who behaved very well. I told him that I would try to behave better. I seriously intended to behave better. But the next day in music the class became a little rambunctious. It was simply too easy for me to join in the fun. (Maybe even lead the fun.) I'll never forget the look on my homeroom teacher's face when he came to pick us up. The music teacher told him that several of us had misbehaved. Of course, my name was mentioned. He was truly disappointed and did not feel as if the conversation that we had had the day before meant anything to me. Of course, since I remember this conversation thirty years later, it certainly meant something to me. I wanted to behave better but my impulses got the better of me. The teacher did not believe me when I told him that the conversation had meant something to me.

As educators, how many of us have experienced something similar with out students? We have a serious conversation with them about study habits or behavior and the next day they seem to ignore everything that we have said. The truth is, however, that as teachers we cannot really know how our students thought about what we said. We need to realize that as children sometimes students do things that they do not mean to do. If adults can do this, can't students do the same thing? We need to give our students a second chance, even a fifth or a sixth chance.

Several years later, a teacher of mine told the class that he would give us extra-credit if we wrote essays describing the way that we thought about what we were learning in his class. I decided to take the teacher up on this offer. At the end of each class the teacher asked us to write a short paragraph presenting our opinions on the topic under discussion. I specifically mentioned in my extra credit writing that I enjoyed these brief thought pieces. I enjoyed the reflection. However, a few days later a couple of the students in my class were grumbling that they did not want to write the thought pieces. I agreed that I didn't want to write the thought paper. The teacher looked at me and said, "But, you wrote that you liked these thought papers." He was putting me on the spot in front of my classmates. I responded, "I needed to write something to get the extra credit. I didn't really mean it." He looked at me and said, "Then you don't really get the extra credit." I remember feeling very disappointed. In reality I did like these thought pieces, in general. I just didn't enjoy settling down enough to write them, particularly at the moment that I had to settle down.

How often as educators do we have students say one thing even if they mean something else? As teachers it is important to not only think about what students say but also what students mean. It is important to consider why students say what they say. It is important for us to let our students know that we care what they have to say. We should let our students know that we recognize that feelings and emotions can change. I certainly didn't feel listened to by this teacher.

One more quick story:

One day in high school I became very upset with my chemistry teacher. I felt that she graded a test incorrectly. (I had a terrible temper that I have since learned to control.) My chemistry teacher claimed that I told her to "Go to hell." I didn't acknowledge that I said this or believe that I said this, but she insisted that I did. (Since I was highly emotional and she wasn't let's take her word for it.) Considering that I went to a religious prep school I certainly could have been thrown out of the school. But instead the dean of students, with the chemistry teacher's ascent, restricted me and made me complete a "pink sheet." This meant that for two weeks I had to carry this sheet around and have every teacher sign it saying that I behaved in class. (Of course, I also apologized to the chemistry teacher.) If a teacher had refused to sign this sheet, I would have been expelled. I successfully worked myself off of restriction.

The point is that my high school faculty understood that as a teenager I needed a second chance. They didn't hesitate to give me one. I went on to graduate from high school on national honor society. The faculty's decision could certainly have altered my life. (Would I have been accepted to Columbia if I had not been given a second chance in high school?)

The next time you are interacting with a student give him/her the benefit of the doubt. Remember that youth are not adults. The purpose of being a student is to learn, not just academic lessons but life lessons. If you are too quick to dismiss students it is likely that the life lessons will not be learned.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Teaching Religion in Public Schools

I'll never forget one day as a teenager teaching several good friends of mine who happened to be Christian about the meanings of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The thing that surprised me was that I was (am) Jewish. How was it possible that I, as a Jew, could teach my Christian friends the meanings of their holidays?

Even more interesting, I was a student at a Jewish prep school. My world history and American history teachers spent considerable time teaching about Christianity and the nature of Christian beliefs. My classmates and I were Jewish - we knew that. But, we did not live within a vacuum in the world. We did not live within a Jewish "bubble."

My friends, on the other hand, went to a public high school - one of the highest regarded high schools in the United States. But, they still did not study any kind of religion in their school. They knew very little about their own religion and almost nothing about Judaism.

I can't help but wonder how many American adults truly understand the meanings of Good Friday, Easter, and Passover. (Obviously, I am just mentioning the holidays that are currently occurring. There are so many others from a variety of religions that could also be mentioned.) How many Christian (Protestant, Catholic, Episcopalian, etc.) and Jewish adults understand the interconnections between these two religions?

Unfortunately, many public high schools tend to be afraid to teach about religion.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It is only fear that limits the teaching of religion. Many educators interpret this amendment as mandating that religion should not be taught in public schools. But, of course, this is not accurate. There is a significant difference between establishing a religion as the central religion of the United States and teaching the essence of religious ideology. Too many educators are afraid that they'll run into trouble if they teach the beliefs of various religions. But, the Constitution does not prohibit any kind of teaching. Indeed, enlightened people should not be afraid to learn anything, or teach anything.

The teachers in my Jewish prep school understood that teaching is not the same thing as indoctrinating. It is time for teachers in all schools to understand the same.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sh!! Listen to the Most Important Person in the World!!

I've been teaching Jewish religious school for more than twenty years. These schools typically meet for about five hours a week, during the afternoon and/or Sunday morning. While students definitely need to learn how to read Hebrew and about Jewish history and culture, these are not the most important things for students to learn. The most important thing for students to learn is how to connect with their own inner voice. Some might call this the voice of God or godliness. Others would not. It's important for students to become calm and quiet. It's important to simply listen to themselves and the natural context in which they live.

You might say that this is an important topic for religious school but totally irrelevant to a high quality secular education. I completely disagree. All children, all people, have inner voices that seek to be fulfilled. These inner voices appreciate connecting with aesthetically pleasing phenomena - a beautiful sunset, a powerful camp fire, an inspiring story, the intricacies of a flower, silence. These phenomena help individuals connect with themselves and the world in which they live. Secular educational has a responsibility to help students learn these skills. Secular education has a responsibility to promote spirituality, a necessary ingredient for a self fulfilled individual.

Te December 1998/January 1999 issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership was titled, The Spirit of Education. Numerous educational leaders argue that it is important to teach students to hear the spirituality of the world. The job of figuring out how to accomplish this goal is complicated. However, just because something is difficult does not meant that it should be avoided. Teachers and curriculum developers should certainly be focusing on this objective. After all, it is vital for human development.

One quick note before I conclude this blog post: Recently I have been writing a lot more than I have written for quite some time. Readers might be wondering why. The simple answer is that I missed the opportunity to express my thoughts and ideas in writing. Consequently, I took the important step of giving myself this writing venue.

While I am fulfilling this need for myself, young people do not yet have the capacity to fulfill all of their needs on their own. Nor can they even recognize all of their needs. Consequently, as educators we must help students do this. Spirituality is one human need. Educators must provide an outlet for spiritualism.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Passover: A Holiday of Freedom

According to the Old Testament, after the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, God heard their cries and redeemed them. Much can be learned from the story of the Exodus. But, I'd like to focus on something that can be meaningful to all people.

What does the word "freedom" mean?

Ask many people and they'd tell you that being free means that you can do whatever you want to do. If you want to sleep all day you should be free to do just that. If you want to say something you should be free to do so, regardless of what you say.

The problem with looking at freedom in this way is that one does not consider the relationship between actions and fulfillment. One does not recognize the absolute importance of being fulfilled if they believe that being free means that one can do whatever one wants whenever he wants.

The Old Testament reports that exactly seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Hebrews arrived at Mt. Sinai where God revealed the Ten Commandments. Is it odd that exactly seven weeks after becoming "free" the Hebrews are told that they must follow certain specific laws?

I don't think that this is odd at all.

Too much freedom is debilitating. When people are completely free to do whatever they want it's easy to become paralyzed and do nothing. (Just think of a day gone by when rather than completing what you wanted to, you lounged and relaxed.) It's easy to alienate other people so that it becomes impossible to maintain any meaningful relationships. (Just consider the husband who violates the norms of marriage and sleeps around. What kind of relationship does he have with any of the women with whom he sleeps? What kind of a relationship does he have with himself?)

What does this mean for the classroom?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Voices in My Head

Before I write this post, I should clearly state that I am not a psychologist and I do not even play one on tv.

Why is it that we often joke about people having voices in their heads? I'm not talking about the kinds of voices that people who are schizophrenic have. Rather, I'm talking about the voices that reflective individuals have. For example, as I sit here writing this blog post, I am not writing everything on the screen that pops into my mind. Rather I am searching for the best words and the best phrases to convey my ideas. Basically, I am thinking and my thoughts are little voices.

I think that too often people are embarrassed about the voices that they have in their heads. I'll use myself as an example to clarify the kinds of voices that I mean. For many many years I had a very low self esteem. I used to say to myself, "I hate myself." "I am a wimp." "I can't do anything right." Imagine the negative ways in which these voices influenced me. (By the way, the voices were not accurate. While I was thinking these thoughts, I was doing well enough in school to get accepted to Columbia University. I was a leader in my high school youth group. Finally, I was matriculated at Columbia earning a fairly high GPA. But, if I'd thought this myself during those years I quickly would have rationalized, "Oh, come on, this is school. School is easy. Anybody could do well in school if they just tried.") I did not understand these voices and feelings. Furthermore, I never could have articulated them.

You might be wondering how I came to develop higher self esteem. For it is fairly safe to say that somebody with a low self esteem would probably not publish the previous paragraph.

Shortly after I graduated from college I had an idea. (Actually a therapist helped me formulate this idea.) Each day I would identify the things that I had done during the day that were truly accomplishments. At times I felt so down, that shaving felt like an accomplishment. But, over time, my lists helped me develop better feelings towards myself. Now, I often hear voices in my head that actually make me feel good. "I have a successful business." "I can make other people feel good."

Teachers work with students every day. My guess would be that on a regular basis, students have voices in their heads. These voices can promote high self-esteem. But, they can also promote low self esteem. I wonder how many teachers actually think about the voices and feelings of their students. My thought would be that not very many do so. Essentially this means that teachers do not get to know their students as individuals. I fear that not many parents think about these variables either. This means that many children and adolescents do not have adults who truly know them. Without this knowledge of youth it is very difficult to help them grow up in the best possible way.

It took me until I was in my mid-20s to feel good about myself. What if my parents or teachers had understood my feelings. Would they have been able to help me feel good about myself at a younger age. I was lucky. Eventually I did find somebody who could help me develop a deeper understanding of myself. Some people never really learn to understand their feelings and emotions.

We kid about voices in heads. But this kidding is destructive since everybody does have voices in their heads. These voices should be understood not made fun of.

What do you think?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Baseball in the Spring

Imagine that two different trains leave two cities at the same time, travelling in opposite directions along the same railroad track. The two trains leave at 11:00am. The train leaving from Chicago is travelling at 70 miles per hour. The train leaving from New York City is travelling at 55 miles per hour. The distance between New York City and Chicago is 711 miles. At what time will these two trains meet each other?

Most students would probably think, who cares. After all, couldn't they just look at train schedules?

The other day I was sitting at a baseball game with a friend and he started telling me about a book in which the author analyzed baseball statistics to determine who the best players at each position really were/are. (Interestingly, I just Googled baseball, statistics, and books and got a long list of books that relate to the topic.) My friend's comment prompted me to think, why don't more school exercises incorporate examples from subjects that are relevant to students? Wouldn't it be easier for many students to focus on math if they were asked to consider topics that they find interesting? Couldn't they learn the same math skills? Baseball is in the air, why isn't it in the classroom?

I recently read a blog post written by a Phillips Academy student who spent time in China. She visited a school and at one point was asked to teach a class to her age-mates. She writes, "Throughout my time there, several teachers had me introduce myself to the class, and one even had me teach a short lesson in English. I chose to go over the pronunciation and meaning of Justin Bieber’s song Baby because I knew that many of my classmates were big fans of his. My class was a hit with almost 100% active class participation!"

This high school student gets it. Students become engaged when they learn within relevant contexts. Her students were not really studying Justin Bieber's song; the lesson was on literary analysis. But, the context was interesting.

Why don't more teachers get this?

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Asking Questions Contributing to Intellectual Discussion

I've often wondered, is it possible to contribute to intellectual conversations simply by asking questions?

Here's what I mean and why I am asking the question -

As people who have read me before know, I have a long tradition of asking questions about current events news articles. These questions are designed to promote high quality conversations on worldly topics. But the questions themselves do not offer direct insights and opinions. Rather they provide structures that support others in offering insights and opinions. Consequently, I can't help but wonder, if I ask questions am I personally contributing to intellectual discussion?

I guess another question could be asked - if a student asks a question in a classroom that promotes thought, should the question be considered as significant a contribution as an insightful comment or opinion? I'm specifically referring to the kind of question that would promote further discussion, not a closed ended question that could be answered with a simple yes or no.

Personally, I think that questions can often be more provocative and enhancing than comments. Questions are the impetus for learning. Questions demonstrate critical thinking ability. However, I fear that we live in a society in which questions are not considered as important as answers. People tend to want, not answers, but the answer.

Since single answers often do not exist, such thinking is limiting. But, I don't think that we live in the most intellectually engaging society.

What do you think?