Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ignoring potential. Ignoring each other.

Today is the first day of classes, so I’m almost jittery with excitement, nervousness, confidence, and confusion. All this means I was at school yesterday preparing, when something all too typical happened. I was ignored, as happens every day, to just about everybody. Seriously, can’t we do better?

Take into consideration that adult faculty members often stand in elevators together, never saying so much as a word of recognition, as though they were standing alone. How undignifying!

It’s astounding sometimes how well we ignore human life, particularly in school, and I want it to stop.

* * *

It wasn’t a major burn or anything. I don’t suspect any malice in it at all. I was just walking in the undercroft (the basement where I teach) when I passed two students sitting on the floor. I’ve seen them countless times before. I know their names, etc, but as I walked by (within arm’s length) they gave me nothing. They ignored me. Not a look. Not a “hey.” Nada.

It’s really not so bad, right? I can handle it, because I don’t need their attention on a fundamental level, but sometimes I think our students really do. For some students I get the feeling it’s what they want/need most of all, and that they cannot comfortably learn at school before first gaining some recognition for existence. (Obligatory Maslow reference)

I’m here! I’m a person! Don’t ignore me!

When unacknowledged, in ways big and small, many students put their energy and cleverness towards gaining attention in Times Square-like fashion. Haven’t we all seen this? Attention-grabbing clothes, outrageous comments, and the sheer loudness of their behavior are a few examples. I follow a student online who admits to choosing her shoes, simply so she will be looked at. The attention of her peers consumes her, and is it any surprise she is struggling with school?

* * *

This got me thinking about bathroom policies. In the past, I’ve allowed students to get up and leave “as needed,” which means that in the middle of class activity or lecture, a student will just stand up and silently leave, while class goes on indifferently. That seemed great at the time, because I didn’t have to pause and say, “yes, of course you can go to the bathroom, if you need to,” but now it feels weird.

If Ginger gets up, walks out, and class continues indifferently, how well involved could she possibly have been? How well could her intelligence have been activated or utilized? The disappearance of any student in the middle of class should be worthy of acknowledgement. It should be a loss for both parties. We all have experiences we don’t want to miss for a moment. Why not class?

* * *

Most obviously, our curriculum is indifferent to the students. It’s standard. Teachers may care about their students on personal levels, but the tests do not. The legislators do not. The mandates do not. They are indifferent.

Today I made it my goal to acknowledge the people around me. I reached out to lots of new students and hopefully helped them feel welcome and recognized.

My day one teaching objectives: This class is about you. I’m not ignoring you. I’m not indifferent. What can we do together? How can this year be great for you.

Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

A surreal teaching video recently put into focus just how artificial class can be, and in particular how inauthentically the role of teacher is often played. I want my students to see me as human, deserving of their respect. I don’t want my authority in the classroom to arise from the power of grades, or sending kids out, or threats, or yelling, or just being an adult, so how do I gain authority with my students?

I can backtrack this for a long time, stopping thought after thought, thinking “yeah, but how do I do that?” How do I show them that respect is important? How do I get students to give each other their attention? How do I get them to deserve each other’s attention? How do I get them to do anything without already having authority?

I try to do this a little differently every year. I’ve tried “norming.” Several times, I’ve included, “just don’t piss me off.” (pathetic in hindsight) I’m looking for something more sustainable, a potential motto for my students and me alike. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Don’t be Times Square. Be the Flatiron Building.

* * *

Times Square

I live in New York City, and I love the architecture. One place I really hate, though, is Times Square. As a new yorker you almost need an excuse for being there, because no one wants to be caught dead in such a gaudy tourist trap. Times Square is screaming at you with its lights, sounds, and overactivity. It’s almost oppressive to the senses. Times Square demands your attention, like all caps – LOOK AT ME!!!! I’M WORTH LOOKING AT!!!! SEE!?!?!?!?!? COOL HUH?!!? Every time I see it, I want out.

I was talking today about a teacher who typifies the “Times Square” approach to authority. He is overpowering, dominant, and very very loud with his elementary school students. Many students come to love him, but some, so I hear, are traumatized each year. My approach to teaching relies on student values, but his method is all about pressing value and compliance down from above. It’ll never work for me and my students.

Times Square is sensational, but completely unsustainable. How much time can you spend there, in the lights and the crowd, before being completely overwhelmed, fatigued, and disinterested? Who grows thoughtful in that environment?

* * *

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building, on the other hand, is my personal favorite. One of the first skyscrapers, and once the tallest building in the world (at a mere 285 feet), there’s no question it was originally an attention grabber. Even still, its design is striking and has stopped me in my tracks several times, but it’s much quieter architecturally. It gives you room to stand and admire it. Every time I see it, I want to stare.

What makes the Flatiron so compelling and inviting is its simplicity and beauty. If I can just show my students beautiful and inviting mathematics, and give them the space they need to respond and take it on, they might stay longer in its presence. This means taking time to appreciate content, and it means quieting down to share in the experience together. If I can model this behavior and bring them the Flatiron building, perhaps they’ll follow suit.

Everyone knows Times Square for the lights and the crowds, but who knows what the buildings actually look like?