My Kids Aren’t Perfect and I’m Okay With That

Recently, I had a mom email to say, “My son will not be re-enrolling in your course next year. Thank you very much.”  Now, this was a terse and shocking email to receive from a parent that I had just spoken with a couple of days before.  This mom couldn’t say enough nice things about the writing her child was doing in my class.   After investigating, I discovered that during a peer review session the son had received both positive and negative comments about his fiction writing.

“My child was just so discouraged by the comments he received,” she explained. “I hope you will understand that he cannot continue in your class.”

I did not understand and this was not consistent with what I saw in the classroom that day.  I poured carefully through all the comment papers, looking specifically at the ones directed to this student.  I was expecting to find hate speech toward this child’s work.  Instead, the comments he received looked something like, “you might try adding a comma in the 3rd line” or “this is really good, but could be better with more descriptive adjectives.”

So, here we go…a discrepancy between what actually happened and what the parent perceived as a threat to her child’s ability.  This was a parent that wanted to protect her child from the pain of  negative criticism.  To me, this situation is demonstrative of a larger problem I see happening in our culture: People have it all figured out.  They’ve got paper writing, parenting, relationships, God, their life…. all figured out.  They don’t need any help.  “I’m good,” they will say.  Or, “My child is a fine writer or test taker or history student.”  Suggesting otherwise is an insult to the parent and the family.   “What do you mean my child made a 67 on her paper?  She followed every check point on the rubric.”  My response:  “If you would have looked at your child’s paper, you would have seen 5 misspelled words, 3 grammatical errors, 4 punctuation errors, two formatting errors and one content error.  This child has room for growth!”

What happened to the idea of everyone having “room for improvement”?  Or, what about the idea that mistakes are “opportunities to learn”?  As I was telling my youngest this week, “Did you think  you could just roll out of the crib and write an algebraic expression without any consultation?”  As humanity, most of us were not born with talent chips in our heads.  We must struggle and practice and perfect, even if imperfectly.   How can we grow if we are not willing to admit that we need help?   How can we become more like Christ if we have no hardships to test our character?

The first step, it would seem, is to admit that we don’t have it all figured out.

I struggle with how to gently combat these attitudes around me.  I’ve been reading about growth mindset and how it affects our approach to learning and receiving criticism from others.  The idea of a growth mindset was developed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck has been researching the concepts of  fixed vs. growth mindset.  In a fixed mindset, people believe their talents or intelligence is a fixed trait and that talent alone creates success, without effort.   In contrast, “in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point.” (edglossary.org)  The outcome of a growth mindset is a love of learning and a resilience, to accept and use constructive criticism.

As a parent, I must resist the urge to butt in, “My kid needs to make an A on this assignment.”  Rather, I need to promote the notion that “You need to know this material,” and “it will help you to learn this concept.”  Making an A on an assignment is vastly different today than knowing the material.  Really knowing something, internalizing a concept means that you’ve spent time with it; you’ve chewed on it, like the end of a pencil and made it yours.  That kind of knowledge comes with risk taking and set backs.

As a teacher, I must find a way to show students that criticism is just the beginning.  Criticism and feedback force us to grapple with our choices.  Knowing that our work will be challenged, forces us to examine our choices along the way.

When I was in college, I gathered up enough courage to show a piece of writing to one of my professors.  “What do you think about this poem,” I asked?

“It isn’t very good,” he said.

A lump formed in my throat. This was not easy news to hear and at that point, I had to make a decision:  Am I going to throw my hands up in the air and say, “That’s it!  I’m a writing idiot. I quit.” Or am I going to use this as a motivation to work harder?  Thankfully, I chose the latter.  I’m telling my kids the same thing:   Be thankful when you get negative feedback.  Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Take the opportunity and grow with it.

Romans 5: 3 – 4

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope;

 

 

 

 

 

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Slice of Life: Day 28

Poetry and Water World

After battling almost an hour of traffic, we made it to Metro Academic Studies down in Atlanta.  There is a weird thing where the closer you get to spring break, the worse the traffic gets down in the city.  Folks are either passing through or coming to town in the spring.  That definitely means longer commutes and earlier wake ups.

Thankfully, after coming off the hectic highway, I had my creative writing class to look forward to.  Each writing student had three poetry pieces due today.  On deadline days, we host a read-a-round where every piece goes into a pile at the front of the room.  Each student picks up a piece of writing (not their own), reads it and gives feedback.  I designed a form that requires the peer reader to offer one positive and one constructive comment per piece.  Once the peer reader finishes reading the piece and commenting, he or she then picks up another piece and comments until everyone has read every piece of writing.  This works well because we only have 10 students in the class!  Everybody enjoys the feedback on their papers and they like seeing what their classmates have been up to during workshop time.  It is my favorite activity as well.  I recognize little bits of my students’ lives showing up in their writing: a trip to Florida, a sibling who has left for college, a new family member.  A real time saver for me,  I am usually able to read every student piece during the read-a-round activity.

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It is no secret that kids are fairly wound up the last day of school before a break.  Well, sometime after noon, a giant water main broke next to the school and we could all see the geyser spewing right out the class window!  Funny, I never see anyone look out those windows, except today!  Then, the power went out and the water pressure quit in the building, so many of my students just hung at the windows, admiring and chatting about the watery spectacle.  It was a sight for winter weary eyes.  And, being so close to school getting out and break, it was all fine with me.

Slice of Life: Day 14

These students are ardently writing about Animal Farm, a political satire written as a cautionary tale against the evils of totalitarianism.  For a writing teacher, this is a beautiful sight:  sixteen energetic students writing and typing with confidence, using transitions, making connections between the text and the outside world, and working heartily right up to the bell.  They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.

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They came to class with their books all marked up and tabbed.  They brought in stacks of paper and laptops.  They had outlines and graphic organizers ready to attack the topic.  When we started the essay, they jumped right to it with a few questions, but plenty of confidence. You could hear pencils and pens scratching and keyboards clicking.  It was a joyous sound.

To prepare for this day, we read the novel, held a Socratic-style debate about the nature of leaders, tracked the characters and their role in the allegory, and closely read for propaganda and irony.  They marked their books as they found catchy slogans, repetitive messages and spin.

Once we finished the book, I gave the students their topic for the in-class writing assignment.  They had a week to organize their thoughts into a graphic organizer, gather evidence and ponder more on the topic.  Because they had been marking their books all along, they were armed with all kinds of evidence to support their opinions.  They were ready and I could tell.

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When they finished, they turned in some weighty essays, nice and thick, double spaced.  No one seemed to be at a loss for written words, another bonus!

What a wonderful writing teacher kind of day!

Now I have 16 hefty essays to grade!  I’ll need to inspect these to see if they are as good as they look… to see if the proof is in the pudding.  Better get right to bed.  I’ll need some rest to tackle these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slice of Life: Day 8

Band happens on Friday.

Practice happens on Thursday night.

Books, instruments and stand go into the truck Thursday night.

Mom crawls into her bed Thursday night with her laptop to write a slice of life.

Dad has been asleep every night when mom has gotten into bed.

Mom has sliced every night instead of going to bed.

The alarm is set for 6 Friday morning.

This scenario will repeat.

In 24 hours.

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Slice of Life: Day 7

Hybrid Schooling and Poetry: A great Combination!

When people discover that I teach high school classes one day a week, I get the question, “Where do you teach that allows you to do that?”

“I teach at a hybrid school in Atlanta, Georgia,” I’ll tell them.

Usually, at this point, they nod their heads, as if they were quite familiar with such a place.  But, most of the time they have no idea what a hybrid school is.  So, I am going to explain it here and show you a little of what we do in my classes.

A hybrid school is a school that combines the best of both the homeschooling and traditional school models.  Hybrid schools meet less frequently then traditional schools, once or twice a week being the most common.  Hybrid schools bring home schooled students together for face-to-face classroom time.  On school days, teachers give lessons, hold class discussions, give tests, hold conferences and all the basic activities that a regular school does.  On off days, students work on assignments, go on field trips or participate in extra curricular activities. The great benefit of the hybrid arrangement is that students and families have a lot of flexibility to travel, pursue advanced level sports or music instruction and study subjects of particular interest.  At my school, for example, students can study core subjects like history and math or they can take high interest electives like film, debate, sculpting or creative writing.  They can take one or multiple classes a week.  I have one student that is a competitive diver and another that is a flutist.  I love teaching in the hybrid environment because it gives me the opportunity to design a curriculum around my students’ specific abilities and needs.

 

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Poetry is the topic of the month in my Wednesday Creative Writing class.  This is a workshop class that has three main elements:  a mini lesson, workshop writing time and sharing.  Today, we looked at the recurring image in poetry, specifically in “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz and “Oh, Oh” by William Hathaway.  Before reading these startling  poems, I had the students close their eyes and imagine an event or situation that has “stuck” for some reason in their memories.  The memory could be positive or negative.  Once they recalled the event or situation, I asked them to identify the image that came to mind in a few words.  Some questions I asked, ” How does this image make you feel?” and “What was the ultimate outcome of that event or situation?”  These questions got them pondering and writing.

Once we read and discussed the poems, they were eager to get to work on their own recurring images.  Some wrote in notebooks; others worked on laptops.  But all said they just appreciated having time to write.

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