Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lunchables—and Packets


My children are fond of Lunchables—those horrible little plastic compartmentalized “lunches” that offer itty-bitty snack-y thingies loosely resembling “lunch.”  They beg, right there in grocery Aisle 6, in the pleasepleasepleasepleaseMomplease way.  And oh, how I hate Lunchables:  They are the nutritional equivalent of a piece of Styrofoam, they cost waaaaaaaaaaay too much money, and they’re notoriously messy and unwieldy.  But, you know, my friend Emma gets Lunchables all the time!  And school lunches are worse!  And Moommmmm, we are so sick of the stuff we always pack in our lunches!

So I give in periodically, and I buy each kid a stupid Lunchable, and when they zip it into their lunchbox, I clench my brain into the place where I refuse further thought, and life goes on, just like that. 

After school, my kids inevitably wail that they are starrrrrrrrrrrrrving.  I sniff and try not to sound preachy.  “Those Lunchables do not give you enough good energy feel good throughout the day.” (Definitely preachy.) 

They protest and defend, fierce and tenacious.  It’s not the Lunchable, Mom.  We’re always this hungry after school.

They’re right.  So I let it go.  Again. 


You know what else I hate? 


By “packets,” I’m referring to that only-in-teaching word that describes a set of, oh, I don’t know—10? 20?—pages of back-to-back worksheets, loosely related, stapled neatly in three predictable places on the left hand side. 

When I was a little girl and playing school in my bedroom, pretending I was a super-awesome teacher, I loved packets.  I made them myself.  I stapled chunks of wide-ruled notebook paper together, and then meticulously copied worksheets I took from my teacher’s Indoor Recess Option Box, and then doled them out to my imaginary students.  And then I actually did them.  And then I gave myself 100% and a smiley face. 

Worse yet, when I actually started teaching, I still thought packets were teaching, so I copied thick grammar packets and triumphantly handed them to my students.  I may have even harrumph-ed.  Each day I would teach a grammar mini-lesson and then direct my middle schoolers to the page in the packet on which they could practice.  Rinse and repeat, until the packet was all full, at which time I’d collect it and spend a Sunday afternoon making sure every period, comma, semicolon, and fragment was dealt with appropriately.  I’d put a number on the top of each packet’s front page, then enter said number into my grade book.  There.  Done.  Swish-swish-swish of the hands.  I was teaching, man. 

But packets aren’t decent teaching, just like Lunchables aren’t a decent lunch. 

They are both pre-packaged, pre-determined, one-size-fits-all experiences that are easy, quick, and require very little thought—just a bit of time and assembly. 

What to do? 

Okay, so, yeah:  Packets aren’t all bad.  I understand why they are beloved by some teachers—and even some students.  They reinforce skills through practice, and give students something to complete during down time.  They certainly are a golden ticket for our most compliant little school soldiers.  

But packets don’t teach Not on their own.  In fact, for some students, especially those who are driven by interest-based, differentiated experiences, who need movement and action and some sort of common-sense connection to themselves, packets can’t answer questions or address confusions.

Just like Lunchables can’t possibly nourish my children for the long-term, worksheets can’t guide students through complicated or real-life learning.  Any type of one-serving-per-person, pre-established and pre-determined experience can’t give the type of long-term sustenance and growth we want for our kids.

But it's not like they do damage.  I've never told a teacher not to use packets, just like I haven't put a moratorium on the occasional Lunchables purchase.  I roll my eyes at them, acknowledging that each has its place if used— infrequently—for a single and simple purpose.  There are worse things, certainly.  And sometimes it's wise to pick—or, more appropriately—not pick—our battles.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sausage Being Made (Or, a Community of Kindred Spirits)

A few weeks back, I got an email from David Redneck, editor of The New Yorker.  David Remnick emailed me.

Well, he actually emailed a few million people—all the subscribers of the magazine—but, you know, whatever.  The email was to share a few additional articles we could enjoy over the weekend.  But he opened his email with a question many people ask, all the time.  They ask it of writers, mostly, or if they are a writer, they ask it of themselves.  Lots of organizations have asked this as part of blogging or Twitter campaigns.  Why do you write?

David answered it this way:
Why do writers write?  They do it to answer questions that obsess them, to share what they've discovered, and, most of all, to find a community of kindred spirits.

I like that.

It's like being an educator.  We surround ourselves with our kindred-educator-spirits, because we know (albeit reluctantly) that most people don’t really want to know what we’re actually doing or how we’re doing it.  They don’t want to see the sausage being made—they just want to enjoy it after it’s over with, and complain about it if something tastes off.

So, at a family gathering, when we tell our aunt and uncle we’re going to a conference to learn more about best instructional practices, their eyes glaze over.  When we geek out about a new book list or Newbery winner with a group of friends, they smile, like one would smile at a toddler spouting off about dinosaurs, and change the subject.

A blog about being an educator is about as fun to the rest of the world as a blog about how doorknob mechanisms actually work.

Seventy-percent-ish of people don’t have kids in schools, and they think about schools vaguely if at all; in terms of students and learning, they want to live in neighborhoods with strong schools, and they want the community children to be quiet in Starbucks.  For the 25% who have students in schools, they want their kids to like their teachers, get good grades, and have a good experience moving toward college. 

That’s it.

So we circle tightly around one another, validating and justifying our conversations about how to be we can be.   We join professional organizations and drool at the idea of attending a conference with other like-minded educators; at school we talk about learning and instruction over lunch, in the hallways, and in our free time; and we get all jazzed up thinking about new ways to teach and lead.  We have to look at our inner tribe, because our outer tribe doesn’t care.  We need to find the people who understand our acronyms, our philosophies, our mindsets.  Within that circle, we challenge one another—we spit and fight, agree and disagree, hug and love and fill one another up. 

We stick tight—because we are together in this community of kindred spirits.  

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...