Friday, May 13, 2011

Masquerading as a teacher

Mood level: Pinkish red, chasing
away the pale. Not too happy to
have to rewrite posts in the wake
of whatever happened to Blogger
the last coupla days …
(the briefest of prologues: I was an elementary teacher for two years, having embarked on a new career that I thought would take me into old age. The economy tanked, California bleeds now, nearly to death, thus a quick dead end to that path. All the teachers who were supposed to retire in advance of this hyper-promoted great wave of new teachers —the one that swept people like me to universities to figure out all over how to be a college student — instead held on for dear life, and new teachers, the ones who are supposed to have the new energy and idealism and research, live a last-hired-first-fired fate with no consideration for their efforts or potential.)

One of the facets of teaching I found hard to reconcile was to subsume who I was in order to become one. Though a writer, I couldn't imprint my experiences on students because news reporting and copywriting are often  constant and conscious violations of writing rules. Whatever I did to teach nouns, verbs and adjectives — even acting out verbs like I had the St. Vitus dance — became like pouring water on sand. Students seemed to forget quickly, almost always right before test time.

As an artist, I found it difficult to teach art because (1) it interfered with reading and math and (2) my art and curricular art are vastly different, and (3) I couldn't figure out how to teach without triggering widespread panic and mass cries of "I can't do this!" within moments of starting.

Strangely enough, I felt most confident teaching math, my weakest subject. Students seemed to grasp the tricks and songs and chants, all repeated daily, that conveyed the concepts.

But I couldn't completely lock out the illustrator in me. I had to let him out to design worksheets, classroom newsletters, even the parent-teacher meeting signup forms. Here are some samples.

While in teacher credential school, I designed a booklet for science experiments on sound (top). Our instructor let us adapt simple experiments for selected grade levels, and plan and teach the lesson by dividing the class into teams that would work together. I got second grade and decided to make the lesson more accessible with cartoons. The school mascot is a beaver, so I drew it slapping its tail on the cover and trying the experiments inside. I had the booklets translated in Spanish, and even tried a simple social experiment to see if girls and boys were attracted to more feminine or masculine looks (they couldn't have cared less.)

All the planning was undermined by something I didn't know to account for — the fact that the teacher had never let the students work together, even in pairs, and therefore they didn't know how to. The lesson collapsed into a failed labor relations workshop, with crying and flailing frustration. Even the kids acted up.

My supervising teacher while I was student teaching came up with the "Place Value Avenue" concept, which I ran with in this worksheet (left). The more I visualized math concepts, the better I could understand and teach from them.

In both classes where I taught full time, I created newsletters as the primary way to communicate with households (left). Somehow I managed to publish almost every week, trying as much as I could to feature student work. The type is too small to read here, but a blurb at the bottom lets families know that our ONE field trip, not three miles away from the school, had to be canceled because the school district ran out of money.

(the briefest of epilogues: [remember when many Quinn Martin TV crime dramas ended with a titled epilogue? How quaint.] California and the country are screwed, probably within the next generation. We will have shortchanged the children we expect to advance the country we dream and talk about.

Teachers and their union are occupying the halls of the State Capitol this week, trying to convince four Republican Assembly members to provide the votes to extend some state taxes, thereby averting another round of cuts that has already swept hundreds of teachers from classrooms, filled the remaining classrooms with more students than are conducive to learning, and cut resources that are meager to start with.

A solution is unattainable, because it requires the mother of all paradigm shifts. We must decide as a people where our money should go: To new discoveries and an improved quality of life and unexplored frontiers; or to someone paid ungodly sums for being able to sing, throw a baseball at 96 mph with cut, act in a movie, be a public jerk, or make money for the sake of making money. We must decide whether our free time and disposable income are better spent improving each other's lives, or playing video games in which we shoot and kill other people.

OK, stepping down from my soapbox now.)

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