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On finding your element

I just finished Ken Robinson’s book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. If you have not yet read it, do so immediately. The book contains several inspirational stories of people finding their “element,” or the place where talent collides with desire.

Robinson blames the current education system for discouraging youth from finding their respective elements. By favoring math and English over other subject areas, including art and physical education, Robinson believes we are stifling young minds. And towards the end of the book, he goes on a much appreciated rant about the ills of standardized testing.

As a teacher in Baltimore, we live and die by standardized tests. But Robinson’s book gave me the inspirational push I needed to come into school on a Monday, ready to again light a fire under my students. All until I was called into a meeting.

I am a tenth grade English teacher. In Maryland, during a student’s tenth grade year, they are required to take the state's standardized test in English. My meeting was to inform me of two things: One, the juniors who had failed the test last year recently retook the test and had similarly dismal results; secondly, because of this, a red flag was raised and our school was in danger of failing.

So what, might you ask, does this have to do with me? I was essentially tasked with manifesting a modern-day miracle. Currently, only 35 percent of my kids were passing. But if I could get 80 percent over the hurdle, things might actually balance themselves out.

Did I mention that at this point in the year, I had only been teaching these students for three weeks?

I had been brought in as a replacement, my administration explained, because very limited learning was taking place with their prior teacher. The students were viewed to be out of control. So I took over the reins.

After three weeks of teaching these students, the administration decided to make yet another switch.

In my meeting with them, they gave me an instructional plan. I was no longer to teach A Raisin in the Sun or future books in our curriculum like Julius Caesar or Animal Farm. My foundational teaching of basic grammar that the students were actually enjoying was also thrown on the scrap pile. Not to mention independent reading, even though I had recently accumulated hundreds of dollars in new books for my students via DonorsChoose.

Instead, for the next eight weeks, I was instructed to only teach material that came directly off past standardized tests.

This new plan was devastating beyond words. I had just gained the trust and engagement of my new students. Now I was required to start from scratch, expected to fill 80 minutes each day with nothing but test questions. If I am daunted by that idea, how could it possibly excite the students? I fear they will become disengaged and that—even if their scores do rise—they'll have just been turned into little machines that can spit out the “best” answer, with very little new understanding.

Because of this development, my students will have only read two books during class this year. And we wonder why students in urban areas struggle to keep up with their suburban counterparts. I find myself getting more frustrated each day that I teach. If I was a betting man, well, you get the idea.

At this point, I just need to say yes and amen to the current expectations. I will do my best to sympathize with my students, while pushing them to master the objectives of this new plan. I will use what credibility I have left to carry the students along on this new path. At the same time, I want to remember the lessons of Robinson’s book: I will aspire to make test preparation as creative as it can be, all the while reaching multiple types of intelligence.

The great educator Paulo Freire once decried the practice of viewing children’s education as a bank. He said most educators deposit knowledge into students by dumping as much information into them as possible. This banking concept assumes that if you deposit enough knowledge, it will end up in a student's savings account.

However, we now know that students learn best by being active in their education. The more hands on a lesson, the better. Just like a new employee that must learn on the job, our students can be told over and over again what to do, but until they actually do it themselves, they have not mastered a thing.

I came home that day, feeling frustrated and depressed. I walked straight up to my room and saw Robinson’s book on my bed. I was definitely not in my element.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

UPDATE: The photos have been removed from this post.

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Teaching: Notes from the Front Lines

Two weeks ago, my heart sank when I was told that I would lose my current class of 9th graders and soon be taking over 10th...

Two weeks ago, my heart sank when I was told that I would lose my current class of 9th graders and soon be taking over 10th grade English.The flashbacks of my traumatic first year teaching hit: memories of my incompetence; of how students came to class when and if they wanted; and how they talked through the entirety of my lessons if they weren't already fast asleep.

The current 10th graders were my 9th graders last year, a year when I looked in the mirror and saw my worst self staring back. I felt awful that my kids were neither behaving nor learning. Most of all, I didn't like the way I handled certain situations. I never realized I had a temper until I became a teacher. But when students refuse to be quiet over the course of minutes, days, weeks, and months, eventually you break down.

During my first year, I was trying to keep my head above water. But instead of effectively teaching, I became a master at damage control.

I would be more concerned about potential fights breaking out then teaching grammar. And instead of focusing on the students who were doing what they were supposed to do, my time and energy was fixated solely on the trouble students.

I have now learned to pace myself and effectively manage my time and classroom. I have been able to establish rigorous expectations and a safe environment for my students. This has happened through seeking advice from several teachers and administrators and developing meaningful relationships with my students.

But the sadness of losing my current kids was overwhelmed by having to prepare for the 10th grade class all over again. And as I read over the class roster, there were certain students I was sure that I'd never have to teach again.

Monday came and went without incident. The same can be said of the rest of the week. My students seemed more mature and I was actually enjoying them the second time around. I felt like we accomplished more in a week then we had in several months last year.

At the end of the week, I had a student stay after class. She had been the bane of my existence last year—coming to class late every day, causing a huge scene, talking at will, skipping her near daily detention. I tried everything in the book.

This time around, I complimented her behavior.

“You’re welcome,” she said.

“So, I can’t help but ask: What's different this year?”

“I know you,” she responded.

“You know me? What do you mean by that?” I asked, confused.

“Mr. Donaldson, you are my only teacher that I had last year. The rest of them are all new,” she answered.

I looked over her schedule. She was right. Her science, history, and math teachers were all new to the school.

The teachers from last year left for a variety of reasons. Quite a few teachers transferred to different districts, some went back to school, and some were simply burnt out and quit.

At the beginning of this year, I had a bad attitude. I missed my co-workers and felt isolated. But after this past week of teaching my old students, my fears are gone. I am excited to have my old students again, thrilled by the prospect of achieving this year what was impossible only months ago.

As she left my room, I couldn't help but hope that she knows me next year, too.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

UPDATE: The photos have been removed from this post.\n
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I'm currently teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my ninth-grade students in Baltimore City.

It has been a tough book not only to teach but for my students to get through. To be honest, it was never really one of my favorites to begin with—and the 250-plus pages that start out about a young white girl didn’t exactly grab their attention, either.

But as time went on and the plot began to reveal itself, slowly, interest picked up. Still, my students struggled with the overall theme—that it is a sin to kill a fragile mockingbird, an innocent animal that does no harm and as such, deserves to flourish in a world without conflict.

Most of my students come from lives filled with disappointment, whether from emotional or physical abuse, lack of parental support or lack of any parents at all.

Last week, I had to take yet another test in my credentialing process to become a certified teacher. I had a list of books from which to design a unit around. Sure enough, To Kill a Mockingbird ranked high on the list.

I figured that the test would be a breeze, with my good fortune of seeing a text that I was currently teaching.

While working, I came across a question that asked for one thing in the book that might cause students to struggle. I decided to tackle my students’ struggle with why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. As the clock ticked on, I spent valuable minutes trying to figure out what was blocking my students from grasping the concept. I became frustrated and ultimately switched to a simpler theme of racism in order to complete the test in time.

I really did not think much more about it until a few days later when I arrived to work. My school had been vandalized the night before, and it just was awful. Graffiti from a neighborhood gang had been sprayed in the hallways, and more than 20 laptops had been stolen, along with the entire inventory of my school’s LCD projectors.

The culprits had taken a hammer and destroyed the drywall, which connected offices to classrooms. They spray-painted over surveillance cameras to avoid being caught on film.

Police believe they spent more than four hours ravaging the insides of our school. It was not just the valuable equipment they took but also their demoralizing acts like covering the copy machine in soap and stealing the students’ prom and student government funds that made it feel like more than just a violation.

It was difficult as their teacher to stand before my group of kids and try and make sense of it.

As my students and I discussed what happened, most of them seemed relatively unfazed. I felt more hurt by the incident than they were. The students responded by saying that this was typical of their neighborhood and began telling stories of all the times that vandals had wreaked havoc on their lives.

After school, when I was driving home, I finally had a chance to reflect on the day’s events. It was then that I realized their misunderstanding in the book. All along, I thought my students struggled with why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Instead, they did not even know what a mockingbird was.

My students did not relate to Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, or Jem Finch as innocent and fragile people damaged by a cruel society. What happened to these characters was not perceived to be a tragedy to my students. It was simply the betrayal of everyday, normal life.

Harper Lee did not teach me why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

It was my students who did.

David Donaldson is a Baltimore City schoolteacher and baseball coach.

More photographs from David's classroom, taken by Matt Roth, can be found here.

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