Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Teaching is Hard

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m now teaching GED and Adult Basic Education courses at a nonprofit “education and technology center.” The students range in age from their early twenties to their late sixties and come to our center with a variety of academic and work experiences. Some never attended high school or completed a few years, but fell short of earning their diplomas.

Some students are referred through the Move Up program, funded by the Pennsylvania departments of Education and Welfare. Others walk in off the street hoping to improve their reading, writing and math skills or to attain their GED. We teach immigrants who have transitioned out of our center’s English as a Second Language program and a few learners who have been homeless and are currently living in shelters.

Initially, I was surprised by how respectful and engaged the students were in my classes and in the others that I observed. I’ve realized that this is a reflection of the safe and supportive environment that the program directors and other teachers have created. Attendance is pretty inconsistent, but the learners feel comfortable enough to assume their roles as students, despite the obstacles and failures they’ve experienced in the past, and the majority of them are committed to the process.

Before I interviewed for the job in May, my soon-to-be director asked me if I would mind being interviewed by some of the students. He said that one of the teachers wanted to create a lesson around job applications and interview skills, so I agreed to it. He also asked if the teacher could share my cover letter and resume with the students, and I agreed to that too.

When I got to the office that day, I chatted with the administrators for a little while and was then led to one of the classrooms to meet with the students. There were about ten people sitting at tables spread out in a way that seemed more suitable for independent study than classroom instruction and my first thought was, “Okay, adults need a lot more space.”

I sat down at the front of the room and got a nice introduction from the teacher who had organized the lesson. This was a Basic Education class, which means that the students are developing some fundamental skills and aren’t yet ready for a GED prep class. All but one of the learners were African-American, and most of them returned my friendly but uncomfortable smile.

The students asked me a few basic interview questions that they had pulled off the Internet the day before, but I did most of the talking. We went through my resume and I told some stories about teaching ESL in Russia and then Kindergarten as a substitute teacher. They asked where I saw myself in five years and to describe a time when I’d dealt with a conflict at work. Then one student came up with a question that he hadn’t found on a website or even written down. He was probably in his early forties and spoke deliberately to minimize a slight impediment in his speech.

“Well,” he said, “you’ve taught all these kinds of people before, but how you gonna teach us?”

Eight weeks in, that’s the question I’m still trying to answer—particularly in the lower-level reading and writing class. With that group, I’ve found that meeting the students’ learning needs, which in some cases requires phonics instruction and writing basics such as capitalization, while also acknowledging the knowledge and experience that they bring into the classroom as adults is a real challenge. Understandably, they have a pretty low tolerance for materials and tasks that are either too easy or too difficult, and in light of their mixed abilities, the success or failure of a particular lesson can be hard to anticipate.

With attendance inconsistent, my class looks a little different every day, so I’m always making last-minute adjustments, even after class has started, once I see which of the students have shown up. Just when I think the group is ready to take on a more challenging text, a student drops in who requires more support decoding words, for instance, or maybe isn’t a native English speaker, so the needs of the group seem to shift dramatically from class to class.

Needless to say, every day is pretty interesting, if not always successful. I’ve already had moments of getting down on myself about how ineffective the instruction feels at times or how difficult it is to chart any real progress, but I also remind myself that just showing up is a big step for many of the learners and that they are improving.

For me, the process that these adult students are engaged in—of overcoming very personal and long-standing challenges with literacy and academics—is both fascinating and difficult to wrap my head around. I’ve heard a lot of teachers say that they always learn as much as or even more than their students in the classroom and, in my experience, that’s definitely true.

If anyone has any input or resources that might benefit me or these students, I’d be open to and grateful for that, and I’ll keep writing about our efforts, just to keep from losing my mind.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Hello, Middlers.

As you can see, it’s been a few months since I put any effort into this blog. All of the hype has died down and the recruiters from various publishing houses are leaving fewer and fewer messages on my voicemail. Part of the reason is that I got some articles into a couple of St. Louis publications and started to think that my days of writing for the public for free were over (I mean…I got paid $35 to write some of those stories!).

Another excuse is that a month ago I migrated out of the Midwest. I savored one last bite of gooey butter cake and moved to Philadelphia, PA, where the quality and character of my soul remain landlocked, but the Atlantic undulates less than a hundred miles away.

It was hard to put that physical distance between me and a few of my favorite loved ones, but I’m now lucky enough to live just a few miles from my sister, Katie, and few feet or sometimes inches from my girlfriend, Danielle. I also have a real job, which is a big change. I’m working for a non-profit "education and technology center," teaching Adult Basic Education and GED courses.

Last week, one of my students brought me my first cheese steak. It was cold and the wax paper was eerily transparent, but I knew I had to eat it. The student considered it a crime that after four weeks I hadn’t yet sampled one of these local treasures. Thankfully, I didn’t have to choke it down in front of her, but facing it alone in my office was almost as scary. Some of the orangish grease got on my shirt and the bread seemed pretty soggy, but I was surprised to find that it tasted really good. And I wasn’t even drunk. So maybe I can survive (until Christmas) without Imo’s.

Needless to say, I have arrived, but what am I supposed to do with the thousand or so Middled business cards I still haven’t handed out? For a minute I considered renaming the site “Middled East,” but that seemed like a failed and meaningless pun. I could just let it die a stale death, which is the fate of so many blogs, but I miss the consistency of sitting down to write without any parameters or expectation.

That said, I’m not sure that I’ll continue in the same vein. I’d like to loosen things up, do less interviewing and restaurant critiquing, and try to put forward some more creative efforts. I’m not sure if that will look like story excerpts or self-indulgent journal entries, but I’ll try to keep it readable.

I hope that wherever you are, you are well and that the gap left in your life when this blog went on pause is now filling up with the most savory sense of renewal. Thanks for checking back in.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Right At Home

In April, I got to attend an incredibly decadent dinner party in a historic St. Louis home. I was on assignment for At Home, the home and garden arm of St. Louis Magazine.

I ended up eating in the kitchen, but that turned out to be the most entertaining room in the house. The semi-celebrity French chef, Marc Felix, his assistant, Elisabeth Ottolini, and the food that they created were all delightful and impressive.

The article appeared in the July/August issue, but you can also find it here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

See the Film

Back in January, I posted "Canyon Run," a story about Ryan Wylie's documentary on the Raramuri, an indigenous people fighting to retain their land and traditional practices in the Sierra Madre.

Ryan's short film appeared on Current TV in April and can now be seen on the channel's website. Here's the link.