Sunday, February 28, 2016

The C in Class C

Class C schools, Class C tournaments, Class C towns.

What does that C stand for? According to the Montana High School Association, Class C designates the high schools with fewer than 120 students. In Montana, that's about 64% of all high schools. 108 of them, to be exact, located in tiny towns and reservation communities across the state. 

Jocko Valley, home of Class C Arlee High School

In towns with Class C schools, the school functions as the pivot point for many activities. Even folks without kids in school come to school events such as band concerts and fundraisers. Grandparents, aunties and uncles and other extended relatives fill the seats at athletic competitions and graduations. Even some funerals are held in school gyms, when there is no other venue large enough. 

And when Class C schools travel, towns empty out. "Last one to leave turns out the lights" goes the saying. Here's a Missoulian article about this phenomenon from last year's state basketball tournament. And what about those fans? Here's what the Northern Sports Network reported when Arlee's eight-man football team made it to the state championships for the first time 29 years: "The fans were one of the notable parts of the game. Hundreds of fans made the 366 mile trip to Chinook to watch their team play in the title game."

Three hundred and sixty-six miles. That's over five hours one way. Yes, Montana, but also yes, dedication. Can you see the caravan of cars, painted red and white, stretching for miles across the plains, heading east to watch their team - our team - play in their first state championship in decades? We lost. But here's what happened then: "Following the trophy presentation, the Arlee players lined up single file and every single Warriors fan came by and gave each and every player a hug. The emotional event lasted over 45 minutes." Because that's how we do. 

Community members left behind watch the game from a high school classroom.

When Class C Chinook lost a wrestler in a car accident just before the state tournament earlier this month, Arlee distributed memorial armbands to their wrestling team. One Chinook wrestler remarked, "It just shows that the whole wrestling community is one big family." The wrestling community and the community of small towns: one big family. That's how we are.

And of course last night at the Western C Divisionals basketball tournament in Hamilton, 72 miles away, hundreds of Arlee fans packed the gym to watch both of their teams compete in the championship games. Picture this: One side of a gymnasium fully wearing red. Half of the opposing bleachers, also in red. One full end, also in red. This crowd is rowdy, ready, loud, and proud. Not only did both teams bring home the first place hardware and clinch a trip to state, the girls became the first team in recent memory to do so.

Around 11:30, I was home enjoying some couch time when I heard the sirens. Not fast, but slow. Not one, but several. And the honking. I stepped onto the porch, and cue the goosebumps - the teams were back from the divisional tournament, escorted by our town's emergency vehicles, flanked by happy parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and extended family. 

If you do not live in a small town, you cannot know the elation of a community that rallies around its own: the gyms packed with sports fans, proud parents of graduates, or mourners at a funeral. 

If you do not live in a small town, you may not "get" the excitement of caravans that travel together, hotels full of guests who know each other, hundreds of fans with matching t-shirts in faraway bleachers.

If you do not live in a small town, you may not guess what the C in Class C really stands for: community.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Un-Distorting Reality

Recently I sent an email home informing parents of students in my senior speech class that we run an essentially gradeless classroom. Students use a "success rubric" to guide and assess their progress, with assistance from their teacher. I wrote about this approach during a previous semester here, here, and here; it was overwhelmingly successful despite some students' initial fears.

Later that day I received a respectful disagreement from a parent who rejects this approach to grading because it doesn't reflect "real-world" consequences. This argument isn't surprising to me at all. But I kept coming back to it, my mind worrying it like a loose tooth.

Finally, this realization: grades in school share very little with job-related consequences in real life. Grades are superficial and vary in meaning from teacher to teacher. Teachers do not necessarily want to replicate the ways they do correspond, the subjectivity and arbitrariness.

And actually, very little in a traditional high school reflects the adult world of work. In what place in the world of work, for example, is a person shunted from room to room every 53 minutes with 3 minutes to take a break or use the bathroom? In what place in the world of work does an employee sit in a desk in rows and interact minimally with others? In what place is an adult told to succeed in a variety of very different disciplines? And where - other than in a school - is a person made to do all of this in a single day, day after day, for thirteen years? At best, traditional high school is a distorted reflection of the "real world."

Some might say that traditional approaches are good for training up our youth for a harsh world. While I see the point, I reject the logic: why must we use the same methods we - parents and teachers - ourselves experienced? We can innovate and still prepare our students.

In my classroom, I have thrown out desks in favor of collaborative spaces; this doesn't mean I don't ask to see individual performance.

I connect our classroom work to the world in which students live through field work and guest speakers; this doesn't mean I reject the "3 R's."

And I encourage students to think for themselves by removing superficial and authoritative grades; this does not mean there is no pressure to improve.

It's time not only to change our own environment, but to change the world of schooling for our students. And to do that, we have to change the hearts and minds of parents and community members, sometimes administrators and policymakers too.

We must un-distort our view of the real world and adjust our schools to match it - for now and for the future.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Holding Back for Deeper Love

Love is on everyone's minds right now, whether it's the love they have in their lives or the love they wish they had. One thing most people can agree upon is that love is complicated. There are so many kinds! Romantic love, parental love, childhood love, tough love.

Teachers also have a special love for their students and their classrooms. You can tell the really committed ones: they open their rooms early for kids to chill in until the first bell. They eat lunch with students and tell jokes with them, sometimes hug them. Some become their students' confidants and surrogate parents.

I am not one of those teachers.

I need my space.
I like eating alone, at home.
I'm not a hugger.
I don't want to know students' secrets.
I don't have it in me to parent other people's kids.

Why can't I go there? My bucket is big enough for six preps, plus grading and planning, and an occasional lunch meeting. Given free rein, by nature I would overwork myself, overtax my time, and overwhelm the straps of my schoolbags. If I'm with students straight from 7:30-4:15, then spend my evenings and weekends with them virtually by grading and doing armchair planning, if I hold their confidences and help guide their personal lives - well, that bucket is too full. I can no longer carry it. And if the bucket contents begin to slosh out, that means I've undermined my own ability to love every moment of my time in the classroom.

I've often felt guilty about this, defensive in explaining why I like to be alone in the mornings. Maybe a little envious of teachers whose doors are always open. Sometimes an awkward back-pat takes the place of a proper hug, and I wonder why I can't cross that line. But underneath this pressure is a hard fact: I know my limits.

And those limits are essential because I must protect this job, the one I love so much, from myself. I want to love my students, my work, even grading. I want to be my best when I'm with the students, assessing their performance, coaching them to improve. I want to show students good ways to live their lives through the work we do together in the classroom. This doesn't happen if I've flatlined from exposure. Thus boundaries are necessary, restraint crucial.

So my students can wait until the bell.
They can eat with each other.
They can find a counselor for their confidences and hugs.

For me to thoroughly commit to my students, I must unapologetically hold back.

And holding back means simply this: loving more deeply.