Five Happy Thoughts

Boy, what a week.  It began with, literally, hundreds of essays to grade; having lost so many days from the beginning of the year, I had no choice but to push everything to the last day possible (and even asked for an extension so I could finish marking them over the weekend and still get a little sleep.)  A deep breath and then we launched right into the second quarter: new lesson plans, new texts, new questions.

I laid down the law about absences and trips out of the classroom, both of which students have more control over than they’d like to admit.  (One student asked me first thing if she could use the bathroom; I asked her to wait. Once I’d outlined the new policy limiting everyone to four trips per quarter, it turned out she didn’t have to go after all.)  Discussing these things is awfully tedious for everyone, but when they’re not addressed, loads of tiny interruptions add up to a vaguely chaotic feeling in the classroom, and ultimately it distracts everyone from our real goal: teaching and learning about English and life.

But there were so many bits of happiness sprinkled throughout all this drudgery.  Here are the highlights:

  • ONE father called to thank me for tutoring his daughter, who has several rather severe learning disabilities. We’d been studying techniques for test-taking on the SAT, and when her newest scores came in, the guidance counselors were simply shocked she had done so well.  She was accepted to her school of choice within a day, where she’ll be able to play field hockey (her sport of choice) and get an education with the supports she needs.  “I have two more kids,” he said at the end of the conversation, “so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”
  • TWO former students flew at me for hugs and gushing greetings.  “Mrs. LOWE!  How ARE you?  I haven’t seen you in so long!”  A third thanked me for all my help preparing her for the SAT; it was even more of a gift to see how much she’d matured in the intervening years, from an awkward and slightly-sullen teenager into a glowing, self-possessed young woman.
  • THREE students who were struggling took the time to complete an extra-credit assignment (seeing a play and comparing it with the written work we’d studied in class.)  They enjoyed the experience and their grades rose along with their confidence.  
  • FOUR pianists are progressing by leaps and bounds because they get to work together.  It’s amazing to see how much more they learn from each other than from me.
  • FIVE minutes after the bell rang, I dashed into class (my first tardiness of the year; I was blindsided by a schedule change and sabotaged by an uncooperative copier.)  When I entered the classroom, breathless and on edge, every student was sitting in her desk with her book open.  “Oh, hello, Mrs. Lowe,” one called out.  “We’ve just been discussing what we think of Hester Prynne.”

So, you see, it wasn’t all bad.  It rarely is.


Calm in the Midst of Chaos

The strangest thing happened last week.

It was a really awful day.  Rainy and cold.  The mulch shivered under inadequate tarp protection, icy puddles pooling on the surface, breaking and sliding down to the asphalt.  So much for our designs on a day in the garden.

At school, too, plans fell by the wayside.  My nefarious ambitions rivaled King George's; I concocted schemes for a Staple Tax, a Printer Tax and an Anonymity Tax as students scurried around with almost-finished assignments and valuable class time slipped away.  Not everyone got to present their projects.  Meanwhile, I struggled to defeat the worst feeling of all -- the feeling of Not Being Heard.  Colleagues and students alike seemed bent on talking over and cutting under my ideas.

I arrived home just in time to meet a student who was coming over for tutoring.  Still, I remained grumpy.  This was the icing rosebud atop the cupcake of my inconvenience.  The last thing I wanted to do after a day like that was teach.

But here's the strange thing.  Almost instantly, I felt the tension of the day slip off my back as I eased seamlessly into the role.  With one student, I could be patient, smile at her insecurities and encourage her strengths.  She didn't bring a pencil, but it was no problem -- honestly -- to walk into the kitchen and select a nice, sharp one, the same kelly green as her headband.  It seemed an easy, enjoyable job: making Geometry a little clearer to one person for one hour.  She left empowered and charged up, her target SAT score one step closer.  And I left with more peace and centeredness than I had found all day.  In the hubbub of red tape and record-keeping, it was a great relief to finally be able to focus on pure, simple instruction.

My dear friend Michiko's words came to mind then: "I am very close to my teaching.  What I mean is that I do it as easily as I breathe. I have come to realize that I am most relaxed when I am teaching . . . I have become it and it has become me."

It is.  I have.  I am grateful.

What's in a Grade?

Our final project for my grad school course this semester sounds an awful lot like a teacher invented it.  It's called Problem Based Learning.  Basically, the students have to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it, and then solve it.  The teacher hangs around and answers questions if they have them, but doesn't volunteer anything except for the premise.

As I said, it sounds like a dream come true for a teacher, and it sure is applicable to real life, but I don't think it would ever work for the demographic I teach.  In fact, considering how many questions I have after assigning half a page of homework, I could probably guarantee myself a migraine.

In spite of myself, however, I'm starting to enjoy the project.  The premise, which is loosely based around the professor's other teaching job, is that an inner-city school is struggling to make state-mandated standards.  They have decided to create a yearlong tutoring program for the approximately 25% of the student body that has failed the last achievement tests, and they've given us $200,000 to plan and execute it.  My job is to write the budget: snacks, transportation costs, teacher salaries, materials, etc.  I've talked them into using Music Mind Games as an enrichment activity and to improve reading, math and test scores (all of which are proven to happen, by the way!)

So during class last week, I suddenly realized why the activity was so enjoyable, and so unrealistic, all at once.  We were coming up with the best strategies, the coolest ideas, the most enthusiastic instructors, in order to help these struggling students gain their footing and succeed.  And the one conspicuously-absent factor was GRADES.

As you may have read recently, grades are more controversial than ever: should teachers grade effort, achievement or both?  Presentation, content or both?  Are tougher grading scales, like the one we use, better or worse than the standard 10-point scale, or do they cause grade inflation?  Should we let a student volunteer for extra credit if she wants to bring her grade up, or deny it on the basis of fairness?  What if the parent calls, irate and demanding?  How much do we care, really, about the grades we assign?

I love teaching, but I hate assigning grades.  It seems so counterproductive to the work we're trying to accomplish: the betterment of human hearts and minds.  How does a number on a piece of paper help with that?

Seven Easy Steps Away from Bad News

I'm thinking of the kind of bad news that arrives in an e-mail from a disgruntled client who liberally invokes Caps Lock while stating her disappointment, implying her refusal to pay for your services, and concluding that your time and effort with her daughter was "A WASTE OF TIME."  But this would probably work for just about anything.

  1. Don't waste energy getting angry.  It won't help anyone or anything.  Instead, talk about it with your husband.  He'll get angry enough for both of you, and you'll think it's sweet that he cares so much.

  2. Go shopping. In person is good for immediate distraction; online shopping is an immediate rush of categorization and authority (don't want this; love that) followed by a few days of anticipation.  And if you don't like it, you can always send it back, no harm done.

  3. Read ten e-mails from grateful, satisfied clients who think the world of you.

  4. Have your family over for dinner.  In particular, your little sister, who makes you laugh till it hurts.  Don't tell them you are hurting; rehashing the story will make you more depressed, but just having them there will help you feel better.  Tell stories and quote obscure references.

  5. Do the dishes right away, so you can wake up to a clean kitchen.

  6. If you're too tired to wash the pans, leave them for the morning, so you can scrub while you gaze at the Christmas cactus on your counter in the hazy morning light of autumn.  It grew all by itself from a tiny cutting you received from a friend.  Three pale segments, now twenty-four robust ones.  And look -- those little heart-shaped buds on the end?  They'll be flowers soon.  Thriving is contagious.

  7. If all else fails (or even if it doesn't) pack your bags and go to Florida for the weekend.

Contemplating Kitticide

I’m studying Algebra with an SAT student in the dining Room.  Maia is doing her best to interrupt: yeowling in other parts of the house, coming to stand just out of arm’s reach and facing away from us in distaste, thundering around and sharpening her claws on my couch.  Finally, she resorts to chewing on the plant that’s about two feet from me.

“Maia LOWE!”  I say in shock.  I push her to the floor roughly. “What are you doing?  That’ll make you sick!”

Not five minutes later, from the hallway, we hear the unmistakable gurgling of a cat becoming ill.  My eyelids drift shut, attempting to will this event out of existence.

My student starts to giggle.  “It’s okay,” she says.  “I have a cat too.”

The Dotted Line

Over the years, I've had a lot of trouble with students and parents who don't seem to understand that learning to play the piano takes work.  You have to drive to the teacher's house.  (One of the worst mistakes I ever made was trying to transition from going to students' houses: most of them quit right off the bat, a few hung around and complained about the driving time and then quit, and only two actually stuck with me, uncomplaining, to the present.)  You have to practice.  And in Suzuki, you have to listen to the recording regularly if you want to reap the benefits of an ear-training method.

Rob has owned his own business, a small architectural practice, for longer than I have owned mine.  So when he offers advice, I try to forget that he's my husband (you know, the one who's always wrong) and listen.  By far, the best advice he's ever given me is that if I want to hold someone to a verbal agreement, I need to put it in writing.

My SAT students are all short-term, so I operate with a service agreement there, and no one has a problem with it; in fact, most are impressed that I took the time to write up a contract, and it's cleared up many disputes about payment and appointment times.

My piano students, however, seemed to always have the same administrative problems.  They wanted to reschedule for illness or other plans; I don't offer makeup lessons.  With enough advance notice, I can credit them for the following summer, but changing lesson times really messes me up, and I've found they cancel far less often with this policy.)  They forgot to pay me on time or paid the wrong amount;  after years of trying to remember everyone's balance, I finally went to a simple system of paying for 4 weeks each month, regardless of the number of calendar weeks.  (Since there are 9 months and 36 weeks in the year, it evens out.)  They didn't practice or listen enough, and they wondered why they weren't improving faster.

Last year I had the idea to put together a contract for each parent to sign.  It consisted of seven or eight simple bullet-points of information, things people were always forgetting.  But something still wasn't right.  Why should all the responsibility for the lessons rest on the parents?  God knows they have enough to do!

This year, my contract is three columns: one for the parent, one for the teacher, and one for the student.  This corresponds closely to the idea of the Suzuki Triangle, which is a fundamental tenet of the method.  Each point on the contract relates to all three parties: for example, the parent promises to take notes at the lessons, the teacher promises to check them and to give clear instructions, and the student promises to work together with the parent at home to see that practicing happens the way it's supposed to.

We'll be discussing and signing the contracts next week.  I don't know whether it will make a difference, but then, I never do.  The thing is to try.


Confrontations are not fun.  It may come as a surprise to those of you who avoid them at all costs (as do most women I know) but no one really enjoys them.  When I know I must have one, I put it off.  I use the excuse that I want to make sure I have enough time for the conversation, that all my thoughts are together, etc., but the truth is, I just don't want to do it.

The surprising thing, for me, is that confrontations are rarely as bad as we fear.  Recently I had to confront a mother whose son is coming to me for tutoring.  To put it bluntly, he was not learning.  His progress was extremely slow, almost imperceptible.  I've taught severely learning-disabled kids before, dyslexia, CPD, etc., but I'd never seen anything like this.  He was literally unable to express himself; I would ask him simple questions and he'd sit for several minutes, then say, "I dunno."  He had difficulty putting even the simplest thoughts into words.  I began to wonder whether I could help him at all, whether I was wrong in taking the parents' money.  At the least, I had to tell the mother that we were behind on the syllabus I had made up, and he needed to plan to come for more sessions.

I didn't want to say the words, because I didn't want to insult her or her son, who shows a great interest in learning and is generally a nice kid.  But finally I said very plainly that I had never encountered these specific learning difficulties before and I wasn't sure what to do, but that his progress was very slow and I wasn't sure whether I was helping him.

Nothing could have prepared me for her reaction.  She said her son had a severe hearing problem, so major that his doctor compared his comprehension to that of an English language learner.  He had always had severe difficulties in writing, and coupled with low self-esteem (probably because of said hearing problem) it was hard for him to accept help from others.  Teachers had always maintained that he wasn't trying hard enough and was "doing fine," so she was glad to see that I understood the problem and relieved that I was willing to help him with it.

Of course, it would have been nice to know about this before I had started with the student; it would have saved me a lot of frustration!  But I think I needed to learn this lesson.  Honesty, first.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I know that title is grammatically incorrect, but that was always the way they phrased it.  As kids, it was perfectly acceptable to hit a few highlights -- vacation, camp, a broken leg -- and allow the rest of the days to slip into oblivion, unaccounted-for.  As a teacher, though, I feel pressure to make the most of every single day without a deadline, a commitment, a parent to call or paper to grade.  Progress!  I must make progress!  And truthfully, for the first month of summer, I haven't done much of anything at all.  So here's hoping this list will inspire me:

Read Reading is one of my favorite vices.  This summer I've finally finished the Harry Potter series (more later on that) and am starting on a few education-related books: Gardner's multiple intelligences, Montessori's theory of education, and Horace's Compromise about the state of modern American high schools.  I also have some fluff: The Boelyn Inheritance (which, like its predecessor, I bought because I was stuck in an airport with nothing to read) and a book about wallpaper design I picked up in Paris.  (Hey, I said it was fluff.)  And I am partway through Shop Class as Soulcraft, an incredible book about the value of manual labor by a guy who got a doctorate in philosophy and then decided to open a motorcycle repair shop.

Play For a music teacher, I don't play often enough.  Joplin is good summer music, so I'm working on a couple of pieces -- some I've played before, and one is relatively new.  For feel-good music, it's pretty tough!  I was also selected to be part of an Orthodox chamber choir, so I have some tough parts to learn.  I'm hoping my voice-teacher friend will help me with my breathing, which Rachmanianoff apparently thought was unnecessary for second sopranos.

Draw As an architecture student, I was forced into two semesters of drawing; after complaining loudly for several weeks, I discovered I actually liked it, and I wasn't half bad.  Recently I discovered a sheaf of them in my basement.  Vine charcoal and newsprint weren't exactly archival materials, so they're crumbling into nothingness, but they made me want to try again.  (I have a willing model in my gorgeous husband, whose Blue Steel is almost as hot as his Le Tigre.)

Cook When we travel, I get out of the routine of cooking for myself, and it takes some time to remember how much I love it.  What kicked me back into gear this time was a wedding gift I designed for a dear friend: a cookbook comprised of recipes I've made many times over the years, basic crowd-pleasers that it's hard to screw up.  One of my bridesmaids gave me a similar wedding gift, and it was so meaningful because it felt like a real piece of her own home.  Cooking is the first thing to go when I'm stressed, which is ironic, because the simplest act -- chopping vegetables and arranging them in a salad bowl -- is so calming.  Rod Dreher has a great piece up at Front Porch Republic about the theosis of seafood gumbo (inspired by the aforementioned Shop Class, which is the subject of a current e-symposium there.)

Work I have to do a little of this to keep me accountable; I don't do well with a total lack of structure.  Most of my piano students cut back to biweekly lessons during the summer, and I cram them all into one day so that I can put away my materials and have a "normal" living room for the rest of the week.  I also do a lot more SAT tutoring during the summer.  This year I have my first two male students, references from the community of the girls' school where I teach, and I have to say it is SUCH a treat to teach boys.  Less drama, more gravity.  And the really fun part: I'm assisting at a Music Mind Games course in order to get enough experience to teach at workshops myself!  Very exciting.  I'm also involved with the Teachers' Committee, where I keep track of who's taken training where and occasionally blog about my experiences with MMG.

Learn What can I say?  Maybe I became a teacher because I love school so much.  This summer I'm taking an elective as part of my MAT program: it's called The Dynamic of the City.  Our first class was last night, and it sounds like it'll be a fun course: two thick textbooks, 16 films, and studies of Vienna, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore (where our final project will be a guided tour of a selected area of the city.)  It's cross-disciplinary, covering everything from sociology and psychology to urban planning and art history.  The professor expects it will require about 15 hours of work each week, in addition to the 7 hours of class time.  I got really excited when I heard that.  Nerd.  Yes.  That's me.

Write Believe it or not, I have a huge list of post ideas that I've been kicking around for the last month.  I've just been too uninspired (read: lazy) to actually sit down and write them.  No longer!  And thanks again to those of you who bug me when I don't write.  It's good to be missed.

Slipping Through the Cracks

With all the buzz about my television debut (all two minutes of it) I thought I would take some time this week to talk about my experience teaching chanting -- and more generally with teaching adults.  I am pretty exhausted just now, having been to eight church services in the last three days as we enter Holy Week with a bang, but I wanted to share a sad and inspiring story about one of my first adult students.

Several years ago, I worked for a well-known tutoring center.  I couldn't work in the afternoons and evenings because I taught piano lessons (at that time I wasn't teaching in the classroom yet) which greatly limited the types of students I could tutor: most of our kids were in school, so they couldn't come in until the afternoon.  But one day our center director called me in to ask if I would mind taking on an adult student who wanted to come during her lunch break.  I said I would love to try, and I met her the next day.

Danielle was in her late forties, and she read at about a second-grade reading level.  Yet somehow, she had managed to graduate from high school, and she currently held two jobs: one working for a government agency (where she was promoted just after she started coming to us) and one working for a national banking chain.  Obviously, she had learned some great techniques for managing whatever deficits she had in book learning; she had also raised two children on her own.  In fact, it was her daughter, who was starting college the following year, who had inspired Danielle to seek help.

She was horribly embarrassed about her lack of ability; in particular, her "sight words" (words identifiable instantly; this is one of the easiest ways of measuring a reading level) were far fewer than most of the elementary students we saw.  Having been raised on an urban dialect, she had particular trouble with pairs like "they" and "their."  We went through the words slowly, reading about 20 a day; if she even hesitated for a second, I marked the word and we wrote a flashcard for it.  Then we studied the flashcards until she had correctly, instantly identified it at five different sittings.

It took many weeks for her to get "used to" me, as she put it.  She was painfully shy and awkward at first, never meeting my eyes, staring down at the hands twisting in her lap.  When she made a mistake, it seemed to physically wound her.  Gradually, though, she became comfortable.  I tried to act less like a teacher and more like a friend who just wanted to help.  I think it made it harder that she could have been my mother; I have great respect for students who are able to take instruction from someone so much younger than themselves!

This story doesn't have a happy ending.  Having become comfortable with me, Danielle became fearful of having to acclimate to another instructor.  If I told her I wouldn't be there the next day, she would call in sick too, even though she had already paid for the session.  When I took the classroom job, I told her I wouldn't be able to stay on at the center except for Saturdays, and her face just fell.  Shortly afterwards, she just stopped coming, and eventually the center director stopped trying to get her to return.

I'm not sure what I wanted to say about Danielle, other than that I had mixed feelings about the situation.  On one hand, I was very angry at the teachers she had had over the years, and the system that had let her slip through the cracks, signing her diploma without ever stopping to see if she could read it.  On the other, I marveled at the ability of the human spirit to transcend even these huge gaps in knowledge.  She had figured out a way to get by, and more, to flourish in a society that was largely unintelligible to her.  And most importantly, she had sought help, finally.

Danielle, wherever you are, I hope it worked out for you.  I hope you're reading this.