Student Creativity: Memories of Jurassic Park Style Blue Prints, Black Clouds, and A Whole Lot of Questions

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Now there is a question worth asking.  Many kids will give you many explanations, but sometimes the simplest answers are there.  Some know what job they want to what they want to do with their lives, such as a close friend of mine pretty much early on knew he wanted to be a doctor, but many do not.  I was thinking about how it is the teacher’s job to foster as much growth and interests as we can.  Who are we to crush someone’s dreams?  

As a child, I had some adults (never in my family, but in school...) that hung like black clouds over me and tried to guide me in a more practical direction, which always felt like they thought my thoughts were worthless or just plain silly.  I had a very active imagination that usually involved science fiction storylines, action figures, and some downright weird/awkward stuff, but it was stuff I was interested in![1]  There were those adults that didn’t judge and helped me become the man that I am today.  Not much has changed.  I mean I did recently just watch Star Wars in the Machete Order for the first time.   So why did so many people feel the need to try to bring me back down to Earth? (Pardon the pun)

I am not entirely sure.  Maybe everyone just wanted me to be realistic?  Maybe they all wanted to grow up and get a good stable job to support a family?  Maybe they loved me and just wanted me to be responsible?  Maybe they just wanted me to think things totally through?  I was pretty aloof at times, my head in the next space adventure.  Maybe those people were afraid that I would never come down from Cloud City or get on the helicopter from Jurassic Park?[2]  

Whatever these people’s reasons for trying to make me come back down to Earth I guess they won in a way.  I entered a practical profession as a teacher and I am still writing now, which is something I realized I liked to do in 5th grade.  I guess overall I wasn’t hindered that much, but I am still thinking about it so they must have influenced me in some way.  

But back to my initial thought:  Who are we to stomp on someone’s dreams?  Why can’t people try things out until they figure them out?  Shouldn’t we as teachers foster as much creativity as possible?  Why is it that people have to say certain types of learning having no place in our classroom, just so they can be tested on “just the facts”?  Or why do we have to always spoon-feed the students the answers in the “correct” way to do things?

Every year I see kids who struggle with creativity and are self-conscious about it.  They need our help!  I try so hard to make kids see that their drawings really do have value and that their stories are celebrated.  They are scared that someone will tell them it is hideous or worthless.  Where did this start in our process?  Surely, no teacher ever went to teaching school saying, “Gee Whiz Mister, I can’t wait to start making students feel like they cannot create!”

I think in general that middle schoolers are self-conscious in general, but it is our duty to make them see that they have creative worth and should at least try.  It breaks my heart to see kids stare at me and say, "I am 12, but I cannot draw, I am uncomfortable drawing, and I will not draw because I am too embarrassed.  Where did the willingness to try go?  Who said something that made these kids stop wanting to give it a shot?  It is almost like the joy of creating has disappeared from them and has to be dragged out slowly like venom.  The creative process should never feel this painful for both teacher and student.  Perhaps as a society we need to start making students feel like being creative is valued over the logical thinking of math and science?  Can’t we make math and science creative?
I really don’t have the answers to the questions that I posed nor do I think that math and science are not valuable subjects, but I do think it is our duty to try to make students feel safe to be creative no matter what the subject.  It can only help make America a better place to live, since we will be inspiring the next generation of artists and engineers those who can solve our plethora of problems.  I know that I will try my darnedest to help bring about more creative thought from my students.  I am sure they would rather be more creative than doing the same old same old anyway.  Once they get into the project they usually feel pretty good about themselves.  Plus do we really want to be remembered as someone’s black cloud?    

I know that I sure don’t.           

Making The Proverbial Difference: Students Are More Than Numbers. They are people.

Ancient Teaching Proverb: Making A Difference

When I was in teaching school the above three words were thrown around by teaching students in my program and instructors alike, which caused some professors to encourage us not to use these words when writing about educational topics.  These words describe what every teacher hopes to accomplish by becoming a teacher and when interacting with students.  Each teacher also defines what these words mean to them and usually we all have those moments that make what we do rewarding.

For some it is the look on a child’s face when they finally understand something that the teacher has struggled for days for them to understand.  For others it is looking at testing data and seeing that their students achieve at a high level or one struggling student performed better than they had before.  And, for some people it is simply the look of relief on a student’s face when they feel safe in the classroom because their outside life is so unstable.  We all know what those moments feel like and those who have chosen this career path hope to one day feel the warmth that can only come from such a moment.    

I recently saw some students who I had last year that had many different issues that ranged from academic to personal and sometimes they took those issues out on me as they went through the learning process.  There was one time I even had one of these students have a shutdown during one of my observations that made my conversation with my principal less than exciting after it was over!  We both rolled with the punches and dealt with the issues we needed and by the end of the school year I had helped her pass my class while processing some of her issues.  My room was a safe haven, even though she sometimes lashed out in anger at me or even just ignored me by putting her head down when we had a rough day.

When I saw her a couple months ago, I didn’t notice that she was hanging outside the high school that I used to teach at because I was on a mission to see my friend and deliver some holiday goodies like I do every year.    She noticed me and both her and the other student ran over to me excited to see me.  She was so overzealously joyful at seeing me that she grabbed me in this huge bear hug and she would not let go!  She held me for several minutes crushing the life out of me as I stood surprised at her joy, giving her a quick pat on the back.  Once she was done giving me a hug she quickly chattered on about other teachers, asked me questions about how I was doing, and where I ended up since I had been cut from her school and had to transfer.  She really cared about me as a person and told me that I was one of the best teachers that she had ever had!  Her joy was so overwhelming I stood there barely knowing what to say, since I was really mentally struck.  I asked a few questions before I told them I was here to see one of the current teachers in their high school and they explained how to find him, since the school had just opened a new building. 

It was so nice to see these students develop into people that had grown from what I had seen from the year before.  Every day I went to work and sometimes wondered why I was constantly giving my all?  Seeing these students made it all come full circle and remind me why I became a teacher in the first place.  I wanted to make a difference.  I wanted to Inspire.  I wanted to make people feel safe and like they could be successful.  Even though at the time I felt like I was probably wasting my efforts or was just a down right lousy teacher because I couldn’t get through to some of my students, it was obvious that I had left an impression on some of them.  I had done it.  I had hit the pinnacle that all teachers entering teaching programs hope for:  To Make A Difference.       
So next time you go back into the classroom, who knows who you are inspiring or helping through a tough time just by being you.  Today there is all of this modern talk about testing and scores or achievement, but we forget the most important aspect of teaching, which is interacting and dealing with people.  If we cannot build relationships we cannot teach content and students will never learn or perform on tests.  Students are not numbers and are often unpredictable.  We are dealing with individuals after all and even Hari Seldon’s futuristic mathematical psychohistory would not be able to help us figure out how to solve everyone’s problems in the classroom.  

So remember, build those relationships.  Help foster them and grow.  You never know how much you really are getting through.  Or how long you will be remembered and will be carried with a student after you no longer see them face to face any more.  

And, possibly the most important thing for all teachers to remember in our darkest hours:  It is worth it to make the proverbial difference for someone out there that really needs it.

Reading Aloud with a Partner: A Secondary School Reading Strategy

Teaching students in the Middle School Classroom to read can be a challenge in many respects.  When many students reach Middle School they have learned a great many things about themselves, their world, and how well they perform in school.  Many of the students I teach come to me with a preconceived notion that reading is hard, not fun, and irritating. None the less, it is my duty to teach these students how to increase their reading level so they can not only pass my class, but pass the state standardized test.  Below is a strategy that I have employed that has caused my students to be more successful.     

In the classroom that I teach I have a diverse group of learners.  I have a wide variety of demographics in my classroom and many students with varying ability.  My On Level classes are a textbook inclusion class with these average numbers being the norm:  

·         5-8 Special Education
·         5 ESL
·         15 Gen Ed
·         3 Students who probably should belong in the Advanced Class, but were left out for one reason or another.

The numbers can vary, but usually I end up with classes that average around 25-30 of a diverse group of learners.  I almost always have a para-educator to help me reach these students that is usually a patient and strong willed individual that gives unending support.  Needless to say my work is cut out for me when I start planning how to reach students and increase their reading abilities by the end of the school year.  

                As a teacher at this point we have a choice when we look at a roster like this: despair or roll up one’s sleeves and get to work.  Since I grew up in Cleveland, was raised in a family that had an aversion to laziness and celebrated those who did serious Hard work that would put George Bush to shame, I always roll up my sleeves to do battle to ensure student success.  Once the teacher has made up his or her mind to push every student to succeed there is no way the students can’t succeed.  Whenever I think of making a teacher face that is to motivate students, I think of the faces my parents made when they caught me shirking off behind the garage with my brothers while everyone else was raking the copious amounts of leaves from our backyard.  Usually they didn’t have to say anything.  “The Look” said it all.  But I digress…  Back to teaching reading…

Once we have rolled up our sleeves and dived into figuring out what appropriate text students should read we still have a problem.  We have students that can read at a very high rate and those who can barely read at all.  How do we solve the problem?  The solution that I have used time and again that has helped students of all different walks of life is the reading with a partner or in groups’ strategy.  

When using this strategy I have usually paired students up if I have them in rows or have the table group I have created take turns reading a paragraph.[1]  Each student reads a paragraph aloud to the other students in the group who read along as the text is read.  What this does is activate several centers of learning that include listening and seeing the information.  Those students that have trouble understanding pronunciations get help from their peers who are also in the group and might be a stronger reader.  Also when the students have completed the reading together they then answer the questions or fill out the organizer I had given them for that day.  They can ask one another for help instead of only relying on me the teacher, which forms bonds in the class and breaks the age old mold of teacher as a sage.  The use of the groups also encourages students who do not do as well to try instead of giving up if they had been reading alone, since other students are counting on them to read their part.  

The strategy has worked well for me over the years now and has helped students become more proficient in reading.  I have had students use this strategy to help them figure out the flowery language of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers as well as used to unlock the meanings of higher level readings that might be on a high school reading level.  I have also seen drastic improvement in students’ pronunciations of words and their ability to comprehend the text that they are reading, due to the discussion portion.  Last year I had a special needs student who had trouble reading at the beginning of the year and later on I found out that after he was tested at the end of the year that he had jumped three reading levels.  I have no proof that I helped his reading abilities or that his other teachers we not the reason he was successful, but I like to think that I played a part in his development. 

So next time you are planning a text reading lesson, give the reading aloud in pairs a shot.  It sure beats students sitting around falling asleep in their chairs or giving up before they even begin.  As one principal I had once said, “Don’t knock it until you try it.”  You might be surprised at the results.  I sure was.