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Happy Thoughts

I was doing better with my resolution to write more this year… and then life caught up with me. The last few months have been a whirlwind of job searching, soul searching, house hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in. Now, as the dust begins to settle, I find myself wanting to get back to writing (and teaching).

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been in the midst of a career move, leaving the small boarding school in rural eastern Virginia where I spent the past three years in favor of a considerably larger day school in Tampa, Florida. My wife and I decided last winter that it was time for a change, but I don’t think either of us could have predicted the way things shook out. (Florida, for instance, was not even on our radar when I started my job search. Life is funny sometimes.)

The school we left behind was a lovely little community in many respects. We made some good friends, folks we’ll probably stay in touch with for a long time, but the career opportunities for my wife were sparse, and while she did manage to find meaningful work, few of her colleagues were in the same age bracket/life stage. Owing to the “triple threat” nature of boarding schools, I was usually busy, even on the weekends, and she felt particularly isolated.

Finally, last year I had been offered an administrative role at the school. I was initially very excited about the opportunity, but as the year progressed, I found myself missing the classroom. I taught one section of a class which met 2-3 times per week, and there were plenty of times when that was the highlight of the day. It got me out of my office, interacting with kids, thinking and talking about ideas, and I came to realize that this is the part of the job I love the most. I also felt like I had a lot more work to do to hone my craft as a teacher, and I wasn’t able to do it in that setting or especially in that role. I may very well return to school leadership someday—there are challenges in that realm which intrigue me—but at this point in my career, I don’t feel the need. (That said, I did learn a lot this past year, which I expect will serve me well if/when I do rejoin the administrative ranks. Perhaps that will become a future post.) Along with a few other factors which I won’t get into here, these things set the stage for a move, so I set out in search of a new teaching position.

My experience of the job market was very different this time around than last, when I talked to what felt like 50 different schools and went on (I think) eight campus interviews. This time, the search was more focused from the very beginning. I was invited for a campus interview here in Tampa, and my wife and I spent a weekend here prior to that (neither of us had ever been here before). We really liked what we saw. Tampa felt like the right size—not huge, but with plenty to do. There were different areas of the city, each with their own unique feel. We got some great restaurant recommendations, visited a local brewery, and went for a run along the Hillsborough River, where we saw dolphins breaching the surface. (Of course, it helped that the weather was fantastic. Only a couple of days before, I had been wearing fleece long underwear on the baseball field in Virginia, while in Tampa I wore shorts and a t-shirt.)

In terms of the school itself, I was impressed. There seemed to be a strong intellectual culture among the faculty, along with significant support for professional development. Students appeared bright and engaged, and the history department’s approach meshed well with my own. As we left Tampa, I was excited about the possibilities and hoped I would get an offer. About a week later, it did.

At that point, everything “got real,” and the decision was much harder than I expected it would be. Even with its downsides, the setting in Virginia was beautiful—right on the Rappahannock River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Crossing the river on the nearby bridge, especially at sunset, could be truly breathtaking. The leadership at my school had been good to me, rewarding me with new responsibilities each year, and it seemed as if I was on an upward career trajectory. And perhaps most importantly, we were close to our families—about 90 minutes away. Even though we didn’t see them nearly as often as we would have liked (boarding school life…), knowingly putting 12 hours of driving distance between us suddenly became tough to justify. After much soul-searching, it was my wife who clarified things for me. She had initially been skeptical when I told her I was thinking of applying for the job in Tampa, but she warmed to the idea, and after listening to me hem and haw for a few days, she finally said, “Matt, this is a good opportunity. You should take it.”

The saga of our house-hunting adventure could easily fill many more paragraphs, but in the end, we bought a small house in a neighborhood that we love. We’re within walking distance of a great park along the river. After several years of having to drive 45 minutes to a good restaurant, we’re now within walking distance of several. And I didn’t realize it before I took the job, but Tampa Bay actually has a phenomenal craft beer scene, with several breweries a stone’s throw from us. We have a sunny backyard where we hope to finally be able to do some gardening, and I’ve made it to my new school in 7 minutes, though I think I may try biking to work when the weather cooperates. All in all, we’re excited about our new situation, and after several weeks of settling in (and countless trips to Home Depot), I’m finally in a place where I can enjoy what’s left of summer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (another future post?) and am beginning to plan for the coming school year. While I can’t honestly say I’m not quite ready to give up the summer schedule, I am starting to feel the itch to get back into the classroom. It’s a good feeling.

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I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.

So it’s been almost a year since I lasted posted here, and much has changed since that time. When I last posted (early December 2012), I was anticipating a busy spring. Little did I know. Things always seem to get busy in February with the start of baseball season (check the blog’s archives–or lack thereof–for evidence of this phenomenon), and on top of that, I was gearing up for a national job search.

Shortly after that post, job referrals started coming in, and we were off to the races. Between writing approximately 60 cover letters to schools all over the country, doing numerous phone/Skype interviews, traveling for three hiring fairs (Atlanta, Atlanta, and Boston) and six campus interviews (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia), baseball, and–oh, yeah–teaching a full courseload, the spring flew by. The end result of all of that, though, was that I found a great new opportunity, and my wife and I are excited to be back in our home state.

I had started my search with a three-pronged mission: 1) to find a school with a baseball program where I could teach and coach–as opposed to teaching in one school and coaching in another, which had been the norm for me; 2) to find a school that was very intentional in its curricular design and committed to a more constructivist approach to education; and 3) to find a school that was, ideally, in Virginia. As my travelogue above indicates, I was willing to settle for two out of three, but in the end, I found an opportunity that accomplished all three. I feel like I hit the jackpot with my new school. (I wasn’t necessarily committed to boarding schools, but I did see rejoining a residential community as a definite plus. Make it a fourfecta!)

I remember spotting this particular opportunity on the NAIS job board. It was the end of my Spring Break, and I had just completed three campus interviews in three different states in four days, and I was exhausted and ready to put the search in the rear view mirror. Although I liked all of the schools that I visited that week, I vividly remember saying to my wife, “Well, I just found the job I really want.” I submitted my resume, and from there, things moved pretty quickly.

Of course, once I accepted the position, the focus shifted from finding a job to planning a move. That meant making all of the little repairs to our house that suddenly seemed more urgent, interviewing realtors and preparing the house for market, and hiring movers. It also meant figuring out the housing situation here on campus, and paring down our belongings as we moved from a 3BR/2BA house with a deck, a garage, and an attic to a 2BR/2BA apartment with a small porch and no deck or attic. Then it meant shuttling across the North Carolina/Virginia border several times as we painted the new apartment, moved valuable or fragile belongings ourselves, and closed on the sale of our house. (Fortunately, our house sold quickly and relatively painlessly–no small relief given the housing market woes over the last few years.)

Once we were moved in and unpacked (early August), my attention shifted to planning for the school year. I usually spend a significant portion of July pulling together ideas/resources/etc. for the year ahead, so the start to this year felt a little like I was flying blind, but it’s gone OK. (Does this mean that perhaps I don’t have to work quite so hard in the summer anymore? That would be a nice “bonus” after five years in the classroom.)

Anyway, needless to say, there hasn’t been much time for blogging. However, we’re now–more or less–settled into our new place, the school year is rolling along relatively smoothly, and I’ve been itching to write again. Given that I’m back on the dorm duty rotation and will be helping out with JV basketball in addition to baseball, there’s a good chance that the busy season will start in November instead of February. With that in mind, I don’t know how long my regular posts here will last this time around, but I’m looking forward to getting back to using this as a place where I can “wonder aloud” about teaching and education in general.

My students assigned themselves homework today. Over a four-day break.

Although I certainly assign my fair share of it, I have mixed emotions about homework. On the one hand, I believe that kids spend far too much of their childhoods indoors, toiling away on stuff that sometimes has dubious long-term value. On the other hand, I also have a hard time imagining what we would get done in class if students didn’t come in prepared for discussion. (Most nights, “homework” for my classes involves reading–ideally a couple of thought-provoking primary sources or perhaps an essay or book chapter by a professional historian.)

Anyway, when we return from Fall Break, my classes will embark on their first adventure (also my first adventure) in project-based learning. More on that later, perhaps. Today, though, we spend the last half-hour of class brainstorming (in a very rough way) “design thinking” and the issues associated with working as part of a team. Then they spent a few minutes in their groups, getting their ideas organized so that they could hit the ground running when they return next week.

When I checked in with both groups at the end of the period, I learned that they had already–and without prompting from me–assigned themselves the task of individually researching immigration issues over the break and reporting back to the group next week.

Is this how PBL works? I hope so. I could get used to this.

I am so incredibly proud right now. I am not a parent, but I imagine this is how parents feel when their children accomplish a goal.

In my American history classes, we’ve spent the past five months using the Harkness method pretty extensively, and my students’ discussion skills have improved by leaps and bounds. This is to say nothing of their comfort-level in a student-centered classroom.

Well, I was forced to miss class yesterday for a professional development workshop, and so I figured this was as good a time as any for them to show me what they could do. “I don’t really give tests,” I said to them, “but you might think of this as a different kind of test. There won’t be any particular grade for it, but it’s an opportunity for you as a class to show me what you’re capable of.”

I gave them a couple of readings (a chapter from David Halberstam’s The Fifties about the development of Levittown and other tract-home postwar suburbs, as well as a magazine article from the 1950s entitled “Homogenized Children of New Suburbia”), and told them that after the substitute took attendance, they should hold an entirely student-run discussion for about 40-45 minutes. I gave them a focus question (“To what extent did suburbs like Levittown represent the realization of the American Dream?”), but encouraged them to feel free to venture elsewhere in the discussion if they were interested, as long as their conversation stayed somehow related to our overarching theme of “American Dreams” or the issues of suburbia, prosperity, conformity, etc. I asked them to record the discussion so that I could listen to it.

The sub (a retired history teacher himself) reported that the discussion was “on task” for nearly the entire 85-minute block, and he seemed impressed by what they could do on their own. This made me happy. Unfortunately, we’ve had some technical difficulties with the recording, so I haven’t been able to listen to it, but I look forward to talking with those students tomorrow about their perceptions of the discussion.

This morning, I did essentially the same thing with my other section of American history. (The only difference was that I was actually in the room, but I refrained entirely from speaking and tried to make myself as inobtrusive as possible.) The students seemed a little unsure of how to get the ball rolling, but after about 90 seconds, they decided to just jump right into the focus question, and from there, they were off.

As they discussed, I took notes and tried valiantly to keep a huge smile off my face. Again, I was afraid that any reaction from me–positive or negative–might have the potential to shape the conversation, and so as best I could, I sat passively and tried to look almost as if I were ignoring them. As thoughts occurred to me–the things that I might normally ask if I were in the discussion–I just wrote them down. This wasn’t something I had planned to do, but it developed naturally as I was taking notes–mainly just a way for me to keep myself from screaming, “YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS OTHER PERSPECTIVE ON THE ISSUE?!” I decided that when the discussion petered out, I would then use these questions to both probe their thinking more deeply and review the discussion as a whole.

Were there opportunities for deeper exploration that were missed by my not participating? Sure. Looking back over my notes, though, I realized that for many of the questions I noted, students eventually got to them in some fashion. This wasn’t true for all of my questions, and I did pose those questions at the end of class, mostly as “food for thought” as we go forward. We didn’t answer my questions in depth, but I’m learning to live with that. If they leave my classroom with even one of my questions stuck in their mind (an unlikely event, perhaps, given that they have to shift gears to take a Spanish/Calculus/Biology test in five minutes), I’ll consider it a success.

As I reflect on this experience, though, it occurs to me that my questions are sometimes a resistance to delayed gratification. Students will most likely get to the heart of the matter themselves if you give them time, but sometimes I lack the patience. It’s almost as if I’m asking, “What do you think about this NOW, not in five minutes?” In that context, it seems like a silly question. Who cares if they answer it now or in five minutes? And it’s probably better that they come to the question themselves. The answer–whatever it turns out to be–will certainly mean more to them if they do.

I really strive to let the students carry the weight of discussion on a daily basis, and I would estimate that I talk no more than a quarter of the time in any given class. That said, it was enlightening to muzzle myself completely for a change. I learned a lot about my students, to be sure, but I also learned a lot about myself.

Mainly because I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer, I brought the discussion to a close after an hour (twenty minutes longer than I told them they “had to” talk), and I told them just how incredibly proud I was of them. I also told them that I hoped this proved to them that they were capable of taking charge of their own learning–that they didn’t need a teacher to simply “give them the answers.” More than anything, I hope they learned from this discussion that they are intelligent and thoughtful young people. They lack experience, but they don’t lack ideas, and if they are willing to put in the time and energy, they can find meaning in their “work.” They can also find joy.

Today, I certainly did.