We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

Professionals

Read the following definition and consider whether you think that teachers are included in the category described.

Professionally exempt work – “Work which is predominantly intellectual, requires specialized education, and involves the exercise of discretion and judgment. Professionally exempt workers must have education beyond high school, and usually beyond college, in fields that are distinguished from (more “academic” than) the mechanical arts or skilled trades. Advanced degrees are the most common measure of this, but are not absolutely necessary if an employee has attained a similar level of advanced education through other means (and perform essentially the same kind of work as similar employees who do have advanced degrees).” (From http://www.flsa.com/coverage.html; as written in this Education Week article)

If you said yes, you would be right. It’s fairly easy to see how the role of a teacher fits within these parameters. Teachers exercise discretion and judgment constantly, they are expected to hold advanced degrees, and the work is mostly intellectual in nature.

However, there is certainly a case for arguing that, in the current state of the profession, teachers do not satisfy all three of these requirements. As standardized testing has taken root, and curriculum has become more and more dictated by external forces, the amount of thinking a teacher is expected to do has diminished. Even at my school, where we test once a year solely for the purposes of helping teachers assess where students are, teachers infrequently utilize their own creativity in a robust way. What they teach and how they teach it is often dictated to them; if not by the school, by their perceived limitations.

Instead of designing their own activities, I frequently watch teachers turn to Google to find a way to approach a lesson that hasn’t been written for them. Yes, it is good to avoid recreating the wheel and it is important to know how to use your resources, but rarely do the teachers seem to think, “hmm, let me come up with a way to teach this from the power of my brain.” Further conceded, teachers do an enormous amount of exactly that in an impromptu fashion, as they explain each concept repeatedly in new ways in an effort to get students to understand. But where did we lose the notion that teachers are truly professionals who have the preparation and skills to be able to figure out how to teach a concept from the beginning for themselves?

What concerns me most is that the political policies draining professionalization from teaching don’t match up with the political rhetoric professing that teachers are among the most professionalized in society. The excerpt above is taken from an Education Week article explaining why teachers will be exempt from President Obama’s update to the overtime law, just like doctors, engineers, and accountants, among others. For this policy, teachers are deemed capable professionals (likely because no one can imagine a feasible plan to pay teachers the overtime that would be required by the update to the rule).

I want this to be true; I believe that teachers have and should have the knowledge and freedom to perform their work to their best ability, just as professionally exempt employees in other fields do. But I just don’t think the current system actually supports that. Aside from the proof given by the enormous amount of regulation and standardization that teachers endure, teachers are paid significantly less than the other professional exempt employees. If society truly deemed teachers as on par with others in this classification, I have to believe their work lives and salaries would be comparable. Without reconciling the rhetoric and the policies, I believe we will continue to struggle to find great teachers, keep them, and give future generations the best possible education.

Full Circle

I have taken more than 20 trips around the sun since I first walked into Danville Montessori School, knowing little about what awaited me. I left feeling enormously grateful for the education I was afforded and have carried nuggets of the Montessori philosophy with me ever since.

Now, it is with great excitement that I share that I will be embarking on another Montessori journey in just a few short weeks — to become a teacher. I will spend most of my summer learning how to craft the Montessori environment and then spend next year as an intern in a classroom full of 25 four- and five-year-olds starting their own Montessori experience. I will have the opportunity to work side-by-side a veteran teacher while actively applying what I learned in the classroom to see how all of the Montessori pieces come together.

Despite feeling like I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, I couldn’t have told you this was something I wanted five years ago. I’m still not confident that it’s what I want to do for the next 40 years, but I am absolutely certain that it’s a step in the right direction. So here’s to new adventures and bringing life full circle!

Being Good

3 hours.

Three hours is the approximate amount of time I had spent being responsible for children prior to starting as a teaching assistant. I accepted the job with a lump of uncertainty in my gut – was I even remotely good with kids? Would I enjoy working with them at all?

Just like I have with every role I’ve taken on, I worked hard to become competent at the work. But unlike the other work I’ve done, I find myself questioning whether the work is something I want to be good at. Daily, my fundamental beliefs about what is best for children are challenged. Daily, I am asked to interact with kids in a way that I believe limits their ability to be good citizens. Daily, I have to grapple with whether I am now part of the system I despise.

Early on, I came to terms with the idea that I was not actually doing harm to the children I teach, but that was a hurdle. My instinctual response to the constant discipline and the unnecessary rules was values turmoil and a gut check as to whether I could continue the work. But, I was reminded that millions have survived our school systems with little permanent damage (short of a distaste for learning) and that even if I might have a better way, the traditional way still produces capable humans.

As the school year went on, I stifled most of my disquiet in the routine of each week. But, in my school April brings showers of questions from colleagues about whether you will return in August. As I’ve struggled to nail down concrete plans to earn my Montessori teaching certification, colleagues and supervisors have urged me to stay in my current role, or to obtain my traditional teaching credential. With each piece of praise I receive, I am struck by the question looming in the back of my mind:

Is this something it’s good for me to be good at?

On the one hand, I’ve strived to incorporate as much of my own teaching philosophy as possible into my work with students. I try to respect their humanity, be patient beyond my perceived limits, give them choices as much as possible, and make learning as engaging as I can.

On the other, I have enforced rules that I find asinine, been frustrated with students reacting to their stifling environment, and voluntarily implemented learning systems that are terribly boring.

I want to believe that the former is what has helped me earn respect at my school, but I fear my willingness and skill for the later may be the biggest contributor. I am proud of my ability to deal with an exceptionally challenging group of students day after day, and my ability to do so with patience and kindness for them more often than not. But I’m less proud of my willingness to mold to the demands of the traditional environment, even when it challenges what I believe to be right.