Friday, June 20, 2008

Teacher Nirvana

In January, my "mentor" English II teacher, Shelley E., strolled into my classroom with, ahem, an idea. In teacher-land, this generally signals one of those "we're about to embark on one of those missions where no teachers have gone before and no student will want to follow them."

Discounting the fact that I'm old enough to be Shelley's mother (but not nearly as stunning as her real one!), I have been totally dependent on her this entire school year. In fact, poor dear, she often has to scoot me out of the way to sit down. I've followed her around because, since returning to my old school, I'd been assigned English II. I've not taught sophomores in decades, but since my pre-Katrina teaching schedule shifted to the teacher who replaced me, sophomores it was.

So, the God-grace part of this new teaching assignment was that my teacher-friend Shelley has been teaching English II for years.

After twenty years in the classroom, I've come to value another's teacher's years of experience and am not at all reluctant or too proud to ask for help and to follow a leader when I see one. So when Shelley's epiphany lit up her face, I knew we might both be heading for new territory without a GPS.

For years, Shelley's used the topic "The Perfect High School" in her sophomore English classes to teach them how to organize and develop an essay. The user-friendly idea allowed the students to focus on the strategies of constructing a cohesive piece of writing without breaking their brains open like coconuts for content.

"Why couldn't our kids, instead of just writing about the perfect high school, actually construct one?"

Uh-oh. We fastened our lesson plans belts, received approval from the administration, and broke the news to the kids. God bless their little souls, they jumped on the idea train with us. Some with more eagerness than others, but even the cynics bought a ticket.

Essentially, each class hour (she had two, I had four) would compete against one other in creating a "perfect high school." The project would culminate in a presentation at the end of the school year to a panel of teachers, administrators, and assorted others.

We grouped them in design, curriculum, discipline, administration and staff, extracurricular, and technology teams. They wrote essays about what was wrong with high schools and what they'd make right. They talked, they didn't talk, they disagreed, they grumbled, they talked some more. Eventually, they wrote individual proposals detailing their vision of their group's ideas.

In the meantime, they were visited by and interviewed the principal, the two assistant principals who deal with curriculum issues, and our two disciplinarians. The lead architect and the school board construction supervisor spent two hours with our kids, talking about design and construction issues. They brought with them magazines, and blueprints, and boards, and time delay videos of the new high school being built.

Graphic Design

The anxiety and chaos increased as the days to deadline decreased. Each class delegated those who would actually present, those who would design the school, and how they would convey the information to the audience.

Finally, it was presentation day. They were all spectacular, courageous,and composed. Sophomores in high school speaking before an assortment of administrators, teachers, librarians, and a school board official...amazing.

One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching is that the "fruits of our labor" often ripen and harvest after we've moved on to other fields. This project allowed us to see them blossom, to envision the young men and women they were becoming unfold before us.

Today, I just wanted to say how proud I am of them, how mature they were in tackling a massive task, and how fortunate I feel to have witnessed it all.

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