This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.

I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

From Monitors to Mentors

Last August as we sat in our school library and brainstormed procedures and protocols to keep our school a safe and orderly place, I could not define the uneasy feeling that stopped me from fully participating in the conversation.  We talked about what our cafeteria, hallways and parent pick up areas should look like, sound like and feel like.  We made a list of what our expectations of ourselves as teachers were and we all agreed to them.  We agreed on the rules, posted them where we would be reminded of them and committed to enforce them.  The whole time what was going through my head was: Why are we here?  Is our job only to monitor these kids during the eight hours or so that they are with us so they won't hurt each other and/or damage any property?  Or are we here to teach them how to get along and respect themselves and their communities?  Are we merely monitors or should we act more like mentors?  The job of the monitor is to enforce the rules.  It requires no personal relationship with the those monitored.  A monitor is not concerned with what came before and what will come after the rule is broken.  A policeman is a monitor.  The guy at the airport who checks your passport when you try to get into the country, is a monitor.  Both respectable, important, valuable jobs; but they are not mentors, they are not and never claim to be teachers.  To a monitor the rule is more important than the person following or breaking it.  To a mentor it is the individual that is being guided that matters.

My good friend and amazing teacher Andrea says school is fake.  What she means is that everything we do in school is to prepare us for the real world.  Skills, knowledge, rules and procedures have no value in and of themselves.  School is the training ground for someday putting them into practice authentically.  The playground, the cafeteria and the hallways are just as much a part of our schooling as the classrooms with the whiteboards and the desks.  Our job as a mentor is to guide children to connect the dots between the abstract concepts of the classroom and their real-life applications in the world.  The school building provides their first foray into that real world.

A monitor stops a child running down the hallway and reminds them to walk.  A mentor sees this simple rule as a way to teach children how to behave in public spaces, how to respect others and think how his behavior affects the safety and comfort of others.  I don't know, maybe I am reaching too far.  But when I have these kinds of simple conversations with kids that explain the logic and purpose of why we do the things we do, I feel as if I am contributing to a world free of obnoxious drivers, loud neighbors and inconsiderate people who don't want to wait their turn in the movie line.

In her blog post on Community, Katie Keir  comes clean about what really matters in a classroom and how instead of trying to manage students, she tries to build a community.  Our schools are a controlled, safe and manageable setting where we can practice building community, so that we can send out individuals that can contribute productively to their own communities, wherever they may be.  And real communities need more mentors than monitors.

Where to stand in the classroom

I remember the moment exactly.  I was about 8 years old, standing in the kitchen of this rental house we lived in while my father was building a house for us.  My mother is at the sink and for some reason she tells me this story:  One day a man took his son to Prophet Muhammad for advice.  Apparently, the boy had a problem with overeating and could not control his intake of dates, the staple food of the desert people.  He wanted the Prophet to council his son against gluttony.  Muhammad tells the man to go away and come back the next day.  When they return the following day, Muhammad admonishes the boy and teaches him a lesson in moderation.  The grateful father is puzzled as to why this conversation could not have taken place the day before.  When he asks, Muhammad replies:  Yesterday, when you arrived, I had myself eaten a large amount of dates.  I could not, in good conscience, reprimand your son for doing something that I had done myself.

I come back to this story often.  It is my guide in my personal relationships as a friend, as a wife, a mother and a teacher.  My motto is:  You cannot ask anyone, especially children to do things that you, yourself are not willing to do.  Anything less, is hypocritical and children have a super sensitive antenna that detects hypocrisy and renders the accompanying talk completely ineffective.

When it comes to teaching, this mantra of "don't ask them to do what you won't do yourself" has become my guiding light.  I can't ask students to embrace reading as the most critical skill of their life, if I am not a critical reader myself.  I can't ask them to read widely and broadly, if I don't examine my own reading diet for variety.  I cannot possibly unleash the writer inside them, if I don't put pencil to the paper often enough to know that writing is the most complex mental task that we perform and it cannot be taught in a one-size-fit-all fashion and in isolation from reading and thinking.  How can I possibly ask my students to think mathematically or scientifically, if I don't engage in that kind of thinking? In short, I cannot be a teacher, if I am not a learner myself.  When we stand not in front of our class as someone who will impart knowledge, but instead next to our students as a fellow learner, we get closer to their ears and their hearts.  And maybe we will both learn better from each other.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Seeing With Magic Eyes

When my kids were younger and we scoured the shelves of our public library for new and interesting books more often, we came across a series called Magic Eyes.  Each page was a picture that looked like a colorful and abstract tessellation.  But if you trained your eyes to focus just right, a three dimensional image would "magically" pop out.  My mother was the best at it.  She would hold the book in front of her and cry "Wow!"  and "Wooh!", which would drive my daughter crazy because she couldn't see the hidden pictures.  I had to work at it, but when I figured out how to look in order to see the magic, it became easy to spot the hidden picture every time.

When I read Katherine Bomer's book Hidden Gems, I realized that seeing the brilliance in student writing also required "magic eyes".  First you have to believe that there is something there worth seeing.  You have to look at every piece of writing believing that there is a gem, a strength in there somewhere.  Then you have to train your eyes to look differently.  One trick I use to look at the Magic Eye books is I try to cross my eyes, which at first blurs everything and then suddenly I see the three dimensional image.  I have trained my eyes to look beyond the handwriting, the spelling, the lack of conventions in student writing.  That has helped me discover some fantastic writers in classrooms.

Be The One . . .

Last night my mother shared with me that her only regret in life is not having gotten a college degree.  Back in 1960 Iran, she had won a spot in the very competitive higher education system's lottery and was studying social work when she met my father and married.  No one, not even my progressively minded father, questioned her choice to leave her studies for a life dedicated to her husband and children.  No one pointed out to her that she could finish her studies and then start her family, or that she could finish her studies, stay home with her children when they were young and then pursue a career, as I have done.

Our role as teachers is changing drastically and dramatically.  We are no longer needed to provide knowledge to our students but to show them how to use that knowledge.  We are no longer the repository of all answers but the source of good and hard questions that push our students to think critically.  And most of all we are the ones who are responsible for recognizing the potential in each and every child and being the one who questions their choices to drop out or to give up.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Highest Aspirations for Higher Education

When my eldest daughter started as a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, she got a T-shirt that said: What starts here, changes the world.  Today I got to see her recognized for her academic achievements over the past four years, and I can't think of a more apt way of congratulating her:  What you started here, will change the world.  I am so proud that her highest aspiration at this moment is to make this world a better place.  The ceremony today honored the highest achieving students at the University, based only on their GPA.  The honor student selected to address the audience was Kelly Moynihan, Senior in Biomedical Engineering.  She is also the recipient of a $250,000 fellowship from the Hearst Foundation and a $90,000 National Science Foundation Grant to pursue her graduate studies at MIT.  Her speech, however, was about what has been the most meaningful experience of her undergraduate life at UT:  Mentoring. She has been part of an organization that meets weekly with at risk middle schoolers to work on engineering type projects.  Many of these kids are now signing up for advanced classes in high school and considering higher education for the first time.  How right it felt to hear this young woman talk about her rewards as a mentor at the same time that her awards as a scholar were being celebrated.

Ms. Moynihan's speech was followed by an address from Dr. Sharon Jarvis, a Professor at the UT College of Communications.  She challenged the students being honored today to "safe-guard" their communities with the same diligence that they have safe-gaurded their GPAs! To think critically, ask questions, work hard and sacrifice to better the world. This is what higher education is all about.

I know this is not the only institution of higher learning that instills these kinds of values in its graduates, but I feel blessed that I have not one, but two of my children studying at the University of Texas.

"That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race . . ."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Goose Liver Pedagogy

I heard the most amazing story the other day.  It turns out that to make foie gras – goose liver – they hold down the poor bird, stick a tube down its throat and force-feed it so that its liver grows to several times its normal size.  Apparently, goose liver is quite a delicacy, not that I have ever tried it.  And now that I know how it is made, I probably never will.  But the story was really about a Spanish farmer who has found a completely humane way to make foie gras.  He has come to learn that geese are programmed by their DNA to gorge themselves in preparation for the cold, winter months.  So he surrounds his geese with delicious varieties of grass and other scrumptious food such as nuts, olives and figs and lets them roam free and feed themselves to their heart’s desire.  The catch is that the geese must truly believe that they are free.  So there are no fences, no loud humans threatening to catch them; just pure freedom, while surrounded by an environment conducive to the geese fulfilling their natural inclinations.

This made me think of children and learning.  Humans are born to learn and anyone who has had a child that they have paid sufficient attention to will attest to the fact that you cannot stop a baby from exploring or a preschooler from asking questions.  (Actually, you can.  If you deprive them of one-on-one attention given to them by an adult who is emotionally invested in their well-being, you can stifle their natural tendency to poke and prod and learn.) Children that are surrounded by adults that talk to them, read to them, answer their questions and ask them questions, learn and beg for more.  In goose terminology, if allowed to roam free, they will gorge themselves on knowledge and learning.  But just like the geese, they must feel that they are truly free to pursue what they wish to learn.  So here is the answer to that difficult question:  How do we keep kids excited about learning in high school, as they were when they entered kindergarten?  Set them free!  Surround them with a rich environment of resources and caring adults and let them do what they are naturally programmed to do:  Learn.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lessons I Have Learned From My Children

Without a doubt the event that changed my life profoundly was the birth of my children.  From the moment my first child was born, I have not made a decision or taken a path without first considering how they would be affected.  Even my perspective of the world and its events is now shaped by the emotions I feel for my two daughters and two sons.  However, the significance of their birth has been in teaching me lessons that I would not have otherwise learned.  Here are three of the things I have learned from my children:

1.  Never give up on anyone.  When my children were very small, I thought they would never wear shoes or eat anything other than plain rice or pasta.  I thought they would never go to bed by themselves.  I thought my children would never learn to get along and enjoy each other's company.  There have been moments when I thought that we would never get past a certain struggle.  But as the years have gone by and they have grown and matured, I realize how many of those struggles no longer exist.  Time, patience and unconditional love helped them master the lessons of childhood.  What I have learned from all this has been that we are all struggling with one thing or another at different stages of our lives and that time, patience and unconditional love will also get us through the tough times and help us master the lessons of life in general.

2.  Don't put things off for later that can be done now.  One spring my then four year old and I were fascinated by the beauty and variety of the Texas Wildflowers growing alongside the roads near our house.  One day, exactly at noon time, my daughter asked me to go out and pick some flowers.  I was not too excited about walking out in the noonday heat and suggested that we do it later in the day.  Of course, she had to go out at that exact moment and being a very persistent child, she convinced me.  We gathered about eight or ten different kinds of flowers a few blocks from our house and returned home happy and satisfied.  Later that afternoon when we drove by the same street, I noticed that the city maintenance workers had mowed down the field of flowers alongside the road.  Had I not listened to my daughter's instinct at that moment, we would have lost our chance to get to know those flowers and share a very special moment with each other.  That episode prompted me to apply to graduate school that same week and pursue my dream of becoming a teacher; something I had been putting off for fifteen years.

3.  You are not completely human until you have cared for an animal.  I grew up in a family and in a culture that did not really encourage direct love for or contact with animals.  I never had a pet and well into adulthood was terrified of any kind of animal.  When I saw how my children, even as babies, were attracted to all living creatures, I tried my best not to transmit to them my fear and dislike of animals.  Some years ago, as a last resort in my fight against mice that were coming into our house, I accepted to take two orphaned kittens and brought them home to my children as a surprise.  In fact, I was the one who was surprised at the degree of affection and concern that I felt for those animals.  It was as if my heart had expanded and I had learned to give in a new way.

I highlight these three lessons not because they are the only ones, but because they have had implications beyond my relationship with my children.  As a teacher, I realize the importance of never giving up on my students and knowing that although they may be struggling now, with support and genuine love, they can overcome and succeed.  I have come to believe that we have almost a duty to take concrete steps towards converting our dreams and ideals into reality.  And, I also have found that the natural world and all its creatures are there to teach us lessons of love, persistence and balance.