Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My Journey Begins...Finally

I have begun the coursework that will eventually, hopefully lead to a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. I am extremely excited right now. And I couldn't be doing this without the incredible support of my family. Based on how busy our lives become, I imagine I am in for a few of the days illustrated in the comic. But I've been proactive in protecting my family from this character by resigning many duties at work in order to keep some semblance of sanity. So far, everything is wonderful! And the following is my first reflection paper. Enjoy!

“I have some sad news for you,” I share with my students. I’m in costume, wearing a wig, flowery dress, cardigan sweater, and using a cane. “Your teacher, Ms. Gallagher, has been in an accident. I’m here as your sub. Today we are going to investigate observations and interpretations by looking at these bins of artifacts found in Ms. Gallagher’s home and office. To begin, please look at the artifacts in one bin with your group members and write down ten statements you believe to be true about Ms. Gallagher.”

And this is the introduction to the school year for my students. It is the day we begin building our community. It is the heart of our class climate. They are initially thrown by the role-play. They are excited about getting to know their teacher in such an unconventional way. They are confused by what this activity has to do with the world of science; after all, they are in a chemistry class.

Although there are dozens of subtle foundational reasons for doing this activity, one of the most constructive outcomes is that my students come to an adventurous conclusion by the end of the hour. No longer in costume or character, returning as their teacher to facilitate our analysis discussion, I share the following thoughts. “How many of you now have more questions about me, Ms. Gallagher, having gone through this activity than you had when you entered the room this morning?” All hands go up with a number of smiles. “As your teacher, I am NOT here to provide answers. I hope this activity has illustrated that I believe part of my responsibility is to instead provide you with opportunities, opportunities leading you to more to questions, opportunities to find your life experiences mysterious and intriguing and worthy of well-formulated questions. In short, you should have more questions in June than answers. I think we’re in for a wonderfully exciting time.” (Activity created by Spiro Bolos, modified for science.)

The night before I did this activity with my classes, I started the journey towards my PhD. I became the student. I am now at the other end of that very lesson. We have barely scratched the surface here in CI 574. How do I know? Because I already have a seemingly endless list of questions based on my readings by Schubert in CPPP. My first course reflection is in fact a series of questions, focused in three areas.

1. My curiosity of history and curriculum as a field:
a. Were any of the most influential educational reformers “just” teachers? Or is it a historical prerequisite to be a professor in order to have long-term impact on educational foundations? To be a part of the discussion?
b. Who are the most influential curricular specialists NOT written about or listened to? What were their thoughts? And why weren’t we listening?
c. What would teachers working during Dewey’s time have thought of him? Of Tyler? Of Spencer? Etc. Did teachers look up to them? Did they agree with their thoughts? Did teachers have time to discuss these things? How different was the actual schooling in comparison to what the curriculum experts had envisioned during those times?
d. Why is the teaching profession put on such a pedestal in other cultures, but is considered so lowly here? What started that?
e. Who would the academic community consider as the foremost expert on curriculum right now? Whose ideas should we be listening to? i.e., Who’s the next Dewey?
f. Who would the teaching community consider to be the foremost curricular expert right now? How many teachers could name five curricular specialists? We asked the question in class, “Who do we start with in terms of the history of curriculum?” I’d like to also know, “Who do we end with? And how did our path lead us here?”
g. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "g" formulated by William Schubert.)

2. My personal life:
a. Why didn’t I start this program ten years ago?! Ugghhh. I am so angry with myself for not starting earlier. I REALLY would like a full-time job working in the world of academia and teaching teachers and helping to improve schools. I miss thinking. I miss discussing. I miss hearing the big picture. I miss being in an environment where I matter, where my abilities are being challenged and employed.
b. How in the WORLD does Schubert know so much? There’s so much to read and absorb and process and question. I need a full-time job just to read everything I want to read! Where do I sign up?
c. How can I learn to read faster?
d. What would be the ONE book I should read above all else if I want to be truly inspired as a future curriculum specialist?
e. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "e" formulated by William Schubert.)

3. My professional life:
a. How have we allowed ourselves (the teaching community) to stray so far away from what is best for our students? Why isn’t there a revolution? There are so many teachers out there…
b. How do I study the damage we (teachers) cause in order to convince administrators and politicians (the policy-makers) that (putting it simply) we’re doing everything backwards?
c. Who do I talk to about planning the rest of my schooling? Life?
d. What is worthwhile? What’s worth knowing, experiencing, doing, needing, being, becoming, overcoming, sharing, and contributing? (Questions in "d" formulated by William Schubert.)

I am thrilled to be starting the process. I look forward to learning, thinking, discussing. I can’t wait to be a part of this full time. Above all, I would really love to be part of connecting practice with theory in a meaningful way…

The journey begins...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My September 11th Story—Which Hat Should I Wear?

"Good morning! Take out your journals and get today's outline down." It started like any other school morning. My students were given a collaborative challenge and were working in their groups. During our investigations, a school administrator walked in, handed me a piece of paper, and immediately walked back out. I made a funny face at the class not knowing what in the world that behavior could possibly mean.

I walked across the room with the paper in my hand to answer one more student question. I smiled and said, "Well, I wonder what this says?" loudly and in a playful voice. My eyes spun over the words on the paper; I remember seeing "Urgent" and "CNN" and "Pentagon" and "World Trade Center" and "plane" and "crash." It took me what seemed a lifetime to process the content of this note. All of a sudden, a shiver ran down my spine. I felt instantly weak and physically cold. I looked up at my class and for some reason they seemed so very young at that moment. They were babies and I needed to protect them. But from what?

I managed to snap myself out of this momentary trance, collected my thoughts and figuratively and firmly put on my teacher hat. In a calm, serious voice, I said, "Guys, does anyone have family visiting or working in New York City today or flying into or out of Boston?" Three students raised their hands. Rather than read the potentially life-shattering news in front of the whole class, I pulled these three students out into the hall. All of them collapsed as I read the news. One had grandparents flying in from Boston; the other two had fathers working in the Trade Center. I grabbed another student from the class to walk these three down to the counseling office and told her to call me when she got them there. I called the office to let them know they were coming, as well.

I went back into the classroom to read the note to the rest of the class. They were quiet, I think going through the similarly slow processing that I went through earlier. While I gave them some time to think, I heard an announcer's voice speaking next door. My good friend Maureen had turned on a radio for her class to listen to. I brought my class next door to join her.

As a student was asking me a question, his voice seemed to fade. My stomach fell to the floor. The wind left my lungs so quickly that I had to gasp for air. A student said, "Ms. [G], are you okay?" My teacher hat was gone and my personal hat hit me like a ton of bricks."Do I know anyone...?" I thought. It took me this long to think of myself as a person. As someone who had a life outside the walls of the classroom. As someone who might also have friends or family in danger.

I checked in to see if Maureen knew anyone—she did not. And then I panicked again. I switched hats. I was Mom. "Are my kids okay? What's going on at their school? Are they frightened?" So I went to call my husband, Spiro, who was also a teacher, to see if I should go pick up my oldest daughter, Katina, from school. (Being so emotional, I thought it best to check in with my husband! He helped give me some direction.) My youngest daughter, Kira, was in the 3-year-old pre-school at my husband's high school.

So I called his office.
"Joan? This is Olive. Have you heard about all this craziness?"
"Yes, that's why I'm calling. Is Spiro around?"
"Well, I'm not sure. Let me check. (Pause) Oh my God! The fire alarm is going off! I have to go!"

She hung up on me!
I had NO idea what the hell was happening. So I grabbed my keys and my phone and was heading to my husband's school. I said to Maureen, "I've got to go. I think Kira and Spiro are in trouble." She said, "Go. I've got your class."

As I was walking out of the building, my cell phone rang.
"Joan? Where are you?"
"I'm on my way to see you! Where is Kira? Is she okay?" I was a wreck.
"She's in my arms, Babe. She's fine. Olive told me she hung up on you and I knew you'd be on your way over."
His voice was calm and light. I relaxed.
"What the hell is going on over there?" I asked.
"Some idiot chemistry teacher set off the fire alarm doing a demo right after the principal made the announcement about the Trade Center. It is crazy over here!"

I instinctually laughed out loud. My teacher hat went flying back on, knowing just how easily it is to cause this kind of trouble doing demos! I turned myself around, went back to my classroom, and talked with my students. I spent the rest of the day chatting with kids about their thoughts, trying to keep them thinking scientifically and as a humanitarian, not letting them get caught up in the drama and rumor of the event.

Arriving home that evening, I was greeted with a big hug from my pre-schooler, Kira. She said in a somewhat shaky voice, "Mom. Did you hear a plane hit my pre-school today?! We had to go outside and everything." I was completely thrown, but then understood what she was saying. She had jumbled all of the data that had been thrown at her that day. So we spent time over dinner explaining things to her. (To this day, she still has to transpose the information. Her first instinct is to remember a plane hitting her building.)

Later that night, Katina and I went to sit on my bed. I needed to rest and I wanted to comfort her at the same time. I put my head back and closed my eyes as she cuddled next to me.
"Mommy, I feel so badly for all the people who got hurt when the plans crashed into those buildings."
"So do I, Sweetheart. It's an incredible tragedy. Such a senseless act."
She was quiet for a moment. She sat up and stuttered, "You mean, someone did this...someone did this on purpose?"

I slowly opened my eyes. Tears welled up in both of us. I recognized the revelation she was having and how thoroughly depressing it would be. Then, she shook her head. It was as if she was preventing the thought from getting any deeper. She knew she couldn't process the idea of a person doing this purposefully. So she instinctively protected her emotional state. It was amazing. She reached her hand over and grabbed mine. She said, "Don't worry, Mom. We'll figure out some way to help those people who were hurt. Maybe we could make ribbons and sell them and give the money to those who need it." Out of the mouths of babes, you know?

I've never gone through so many unexpected hat changes in such a short amount of time. And all I can think is that if this experience drained me psychologically and physically at this level, I have so much respect and admiration for anyone who actually lived through it. I can't even begin to imagine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Obama's Address to Schools

NEW INFO: See blue text below...

This is the letter I wrote to my daughters' school district. What are your thoughts?

Dear District 200 Board Members,

I am extremely disappointed with your decision to ban President Obama's address to the children of our district. I am a parent in the community and a 20-year veteran teacher. As an educator, I know it is necessary to make our curriculum relevant to our children's lives, particularly if we want them to be engaged as active learners. This rare opportunity to use a live presidential speech—a speech being addressed directly to our children—as the source of meaningful dialogue in the classroom should be the focus of your day on Tuesday in every building. The electricity running through your classrooms, watching the students come to life conversing about something that sincerely matters—the importance of school and a strong education—will be a fabulous reminder to all of us what our primary purpose should be as professional educators. Namely, that we are nurturing our children to be critical thinkers, sensitive to the world around them and capable of making informed, constructive decisions.

We moved into this district in part due to the excellent reputation of District 200's strong, challenging schools. I find this decision to be in direct contrast to the characteristics that make a school excellent. The greatest tragedy of this decision is that you've removed the academic freedom from the teachers you supposedly support. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a union grievance.) You are sending the message that your teachers are incapable of facilitating an impromptu, dynamic and potentially passionate discussion among a couple dozen students, students you put in their charge on a daily basis. How do you explain this discrepancy? They are either hired to be educators, or they are hired as pawns to deliver approved, scripted content. Please do not allow their progressive ideas and these rare opportunities to become suffocated in the penetrating trend of standardization and indoctrination.

This is very much an embarrassment to me and my children. The districts in the area where I work have instead left this decision to the teachers to determine whether the speech is an appropriate focus for their day's lesson. They have also set up areas in the buildings where students and classes can go to watch this historical event, including the lunch room for those students eating lunch at that time.

As a science teacher, I plan to have the president's speech playing in my classroom and then discuss whether or not his thoughts will help solve any of the 20 greatest scientific, global problems as outlined in the book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Fix Them. The idea of disagreeing with the president's thoughts is as welcome as agreeing with them and as welcome as not understanding long as a student has a well-formulated opinion. This is the foundation of developing a constructive educational community. Without this freedom, I would not have the opportunity to make this lesson really come to life. And I believe my students will find the day eye-opening, challenging and—dare I say it—even inspiring. This is the type of environment in which our greatest historical thinkers thrived. Don't deprive our children of these experiences.

There are a host of other reasons why I find this decision wrong, but I wanted to highlight only my main frustrations. Please know that I recognize that there are logistical challenges to schedule changes and am intimately familiar with the potential difficulties of dealing with technology. However, our children are worth the effort. And there are creative ways to solving any problem. That's what I learned in school.

Don't deprive our children of this historical event. Don't let them be the "kids from the schools that banned the president." Don't close the door on our children or our teachers.

This is a teacher's decision. Trust them. I implore you. Trust them.

Joan Gallagher-Bolos

Seems the campaign spearheaded by our neighbors worked, at least in part. The community received notice yesterday that the school will record the president's speech and that students will be shown his address in school on Wednesday. A form will be sent home today for parents to have their child opt out of watching the speech if they so wish.

Not what I was fighting for, but I guess baby steps in this region is all we can hope for...They're still missing the point. Really missing the big picture...