Time and teaching, again

After my post the other day, The Guardian published this excellent piece by Isabel Manley. I loved Odell’s book. I love this representation of that book and how one teacher tries to make sense of time. And Manley can actually draw.

This last panel got me thinking:

“The kind of time,” I would bet, is accompanied by a notion of the kind of space too. Most teachers want their room to feel like a studio, or an artist’s loft, or a museum office, or a newsroom. (It’s a great exercise to think about what space you want your classroom to look like especially if you make a list of the things that work against it.) But a good portion of those activities aren’t communal, and you also have more than a few minutes where it’s not about the work you’re doing as a group. It’s about the individual.

So you have to do the work to make it so that people want to be in the space but you also have to contend with the fact that your classroom is embedded in a school with thirty, forty, fifty other classrooms. Classrooms. Cells and bells, yo.

Think about when and where humans feel the “ah, let me sit down and create something?” Not in a vaguely-industrial, partially-cleaned space filled with a mix of friends and acquaintances, some of whom are feeling the same and others of whom are focused on where the next bag of Hot Chitoes can be found. And where one noisy person is telling them what to do.

(Student workspace on a Thursday afternoon in 308)

But Manley’s piece is about time, not space. Part of the reason why I’m up well before 5AM each morning is because it’s the only time I have to be creative. To try and write something. To try and be something other than teacher drone, beholden to the clock. Can I write something? Can I put myself in a position where I’m walking away from this life with one or more cool things to show for myself, just as I spend my days trying to put kids in a position where they walk away from our class with one or more cool things to show for themselves?

Thurs AM Walk

Listening to EK.

Lots to think about but first thing:

There are, in my view, three stages of making art. One of them is the imagining, and the final one is the shaping. But in between, there is the judging, which is kind of what we’re talking about here, the editing. And imagining gets a lot of space on YouTube videos and books that help you free up your imagination, which is very important.

And then the shaping gets a lot of attention because it’s about craft and technique and how you make the thing that is at least close to something in your head. What kind of never gets any love is this middle ground, which is the judging.

Thoughts on individualized instruction, April 2024

In the summer between my tenth and eleventh grade year it became apparent that I’d earned a terrible grade in calculus. In order to bump my grade, I had the option of seeing a tutor and then re-taking various elements of the course. My parents did what parents did in the 1970s — pointed at my Schwinn Varsity and told me to start pedaling. Twice a week I rode the bike ten miles up a divided highway and sat with a tutor who gently and effectively carried me through the necessary material. He was great. I remember his patience and I remember how easily the concepts came when it was just the two of us. I don’t remember his name.   

I know that individual instruction is important and I know that it works. Yet everything in schools and society seems to work against this idea. And, from my jaded, late-April teacher eyes, it seems to be getting worse each year: what we ask of teachers, what’s on their plates, makes it more and more difficult. I watched almost every minute of the NCAA tournament this year on the women’s side and I was reminded of this as I watched these super well-coached teams operate.  Here’s a head coach. Here’s three or more paid assistant coaches. Here’s four to six unpaid student supporters.  All these different support staff members make possible lots of one-on-one connections with twelve to fifteen super-motivated individuals.  Lo and behold, success.  

Then there’s a teacher, alone, with no support staff, in a position where no one is coming to help, and, even in the best schools on the best days, they are tending to twenty to thirty percent of the kids who are only there because they have to be.  Reformers and folks who care about school talk a great deal about individualizing instruction and I don’t disagree with their emphasis.  But it’s worth exploring the nature of individual instruction in 2024 through the eyes of a teacher. 

If you want to maintain any kind of creative pedagogy, this level of individual attention, at least on the public school scale, can feel nearly impossible. Even as my teaching improves, even as I’m aware of the different ways that kids can go right or wrong when we grapple with a topic, there’s too many humans in the room for me to be able to adequately individualize my instruction. There are different ways I try to address this — scheduling mini-conferences, individual emails, comments on Canvas, comments on documents, conversations with kids in passing, before or after class — but they are never enough. And even though I work hard to make sure that I have a community and a diverse and differentiated pedagogy that works to take care of the many students in the room, I still miss kids, and I have moments where the amount of energy I burn trying to keep groups of thirty-three kids on track for four to six hours a day leaves me empty.  

It’s not just the everyday teaching process, though. The rise of IEPs and 504 plans has had a big impact. I am not doubting the need for these plans nor am I shirking the legal mandate they create for me as a classroom teacher. However, you cannot have a class of thirty-three kids where somewhere between a sixth and a third of the class have IEPs and 504 plans.  The paperwork alone is enough to make that impossible before you even begin to think about differentiating your instruction across multiple axes.  

I also know that mental health issues are being identified among teenagers at astoundingly high rates. We can debate whether the rates are increasing or whether the level of awareness is increasing, but there’s certainly more language being used by students to take this on and more students who will come to me discussing their anxiety, their depression, their ADD, their ADHD, their OCD.  And there is not yet a middle ground between the 1970s “stop being lazy” and the current day vision of mental health issues as a “get out of jail free” card. I know that sounds harsh but I’m having too many conversations with parents and students that begin with “because of my ___, I can’t do ___.”  These conversations rarely seem to include “hey, I’m struggling with X, which leads to the following symptoms and struggles, so I’ve tried the following strategies and none of them have worked, so I need additional support.”  And I could work with kids to start having that conversation if I had any time at all.  

Now remember the fifteen months that COVID chomped out of all of our lives, which created an illusion or a delusion that individual instruction might be possible.  For the first time, owing to the reorganization of the schedule, you could check-in with kids on a one-to-one basis.   Sometimes this happened. Sometimes it didn’t. The COVID months certainly underscored that we spend too many hours in school; it made more than a few people think that one day a week of conferences, office hours, and tutorials might serve kids well.  Alas, for every three kids I have who could manage an independent day once a week where they went to office hours and worked to a plan of their own devising, I have at least one who could not (or would not) benefit from that. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah — you’re constantly compromising. Nothing new about that and teaching. But I think there’s a conflict brewing, one that’s yet another reason that teaching is increasingly untenable:  you can’t meet all of these individual needs. You can pretend. You can create accommodations and modifications that may or may not work. You can sort through your 180 days with kids and seek to develop as varied a curriculum as possible.  But on the scale of most public schools — four to five classes of thirty or more students — it’s like the fifty-five year old man with cheese steak juice dribbling down his chin declaring he’s going to finally run a marathon of six-minute miles. It ain’t happening, old man. Run your nine-minute miles and try not to get beat by the man in the purple-velour suit.  

Without finding time for individual conversations, though, I’m never going to win the “hey, this work is worth doing for the life of your mind and the health of your soul” argument. If a portion of teaching is inspiring students, you need to have time to actually connect, to see how they’re making sense of the class, the readings, and the discussions.  I have five minutes between classes to tend to my middle-aged bladder but more often than not, these are some of the most effective moments of teaching I have. Kids come with a legit question that’s not bound up in the social energy of the classroom and I can ask multiple follow-ups to see what they’re after; most of the time they leave feeling seen and understood and I get a little bump of satisfaction that I reached someone that day.  But then the next class has arrived and I still haven’t done my business.     

So what do I do about it, as one teacher with finite resources of time and energy?  The same thing I do with pretty much everything related to teaching: I keep trying. I design as many moments as I can where I have individual contact with students and I hope that in those moments I can actually be present.  I anticipate the way a large bureaucracy and a city full of surprises will offer new obstacles to my teaching.  I remember that choosing these individual connections relies on a larger culture within the class and school to allow me to do this, i.e., I can’t just say it’s individual meetings today because there are thirty-three people in the room and meeting with one kid relies on the rest of the students being able to remain productive or at least not destructive; so I do what I can to create the right sort of classroom culture.  Most importantly, I keep my eyes on the fact that the students want and need this individual attention and connection too.