Substituting vs. Tutoring

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I’ve warmed to the idea that I should be a teacher. It’s taken some time, but I’ve come to realize that working with students (of all ages) brings me a sublime pleasure that other jobs have not and do not. Because of this, I’ve been working on getting into a classroom on a more permanent basis. I’ve been tutoring for ever; it’s well documented on this blog. But substitute teaching is relatively new as far as my teaching career goes. However, in that short time, I’ve noticed several differences.

Substitute teaching, at its best, is the closest you can get to teaching without being a certified teacher. In many situations, as the sub, you’re responsible for making sure the academic goals of that class are met that day. I relish those assignments, especially within an area of my expertise, because I know I am actually teaching, adding to the knowledge base of the students.

It’s fantastic.

Tutoring offers a similar feeling but it is relegated to an individual. As a sub I can achieve that “Spark,” the moment a student finally understands a concept, fifteen to twenty-five times in one class. When you factor in multiple periods during the day, you’re looking at generating the “Spark” at least one hundred times in one day. Tutoring can’t match those numbers.

Another interesting aspect of sub-teaching is the variety of assignments. As an example, these were my “jobs” last week: Mon-Tue, High school gym class. Wed, 6th grade theater class. Thurs, 6th grade science class. Fri, 7th/8th grade history class. What better way to test your ability to manage a class by pitting yourself against different subjects at different school levels? Plus gym! If you can handle that, chances are you’ll make a good teacher.

This variety can be a bit of a double-edged sword though. I was complaining last week that I signed up to cover an English class but was moved to a theater class when I showed up at the school. Sure, that sucks, especially if you’re trying to gain experience in a specific subject, but as my friend B. Walters pointed out, if you can teach outside your subject area, it makes a better teacher. Wise words.

As a tutor, I stay within my knowledge base, writing. Yes, I know a lot about the writing process, how to do it, editing, drafting, blah, blah, blah. I’ve used this skill to earn a living. Despite how deep my knowledge is, in the grand scheme of subjects, it is narrow. I’d be less confident tutoring someone in French even though I speak the language. As a sub-teacher, I can work in a class in a different subject because the permanent teacher usually leaves a bit of a guideline that acts as a refresher for me on the specific subject, allowing me to be successful as I lead the class that day.

At its worst, sub-teaching is a just glorified baby-sitting. There are those days when you show up, looking forward to doing some actual teaching, and the permanent teacher has left a bunch of worksheets for their students to do. Awesome, now I’ll spend the day taking attendance, handing out worksheets and monitoring students’ desires to leave class for a “drink of water” or to “use the bathroom.” Worksheets are offensive to me. They say the permanent teacher views the day they are not present as a lost day with no potential for learning because a substitute couldn’t possibly teach a class, and classes covered by a substitute couldn’t possibly learn anything without the permanent teacher.

As a tutor, I’ve never had a situation where I had to rely on worksheets to teach or pass time. Most often, students come to tutors with work that needs to be done. On the rare occasion that a student has no work, but wants to work with a tutor, I know plenty of quick lessons to give so that tutoring time isn’t wasted. None of them involve worksheets.

Tutoring isn’t always as great as it seems either. For every student you see who is prepared and ready to work, there are ten students who “have nothing to do” or “forgot/lost the assignment,” if they show up at all. While I’m all for being paid to sit around, playing on my laptop, part of the reason I tutor is for the interactions. I want to see and help students!

A la fini (that’s French), I wouldn’t say one form of teaching, sub-teaching or tutoring, is better than the other. They  have their place in the spectrum of education. For me, however, sub-teaching is a means to an end. It is my ticket into full time teaching. As for tutoring, I feel I can always do that no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

Monkey Bicycle Interviews Ori Fienberg

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Today J.A. Taylor from the literary journal Monkeybicycle interviewed poet and Phreelance Writer contributor Ori Fienberg about his piece ‘Clockwork Dog’ which appears in their latest issue. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

‘Clockwork Dog’ is built on a disparity of terms – ‘friendly friction’ / ‘retrieving discarded’ / etc. – how important is this discord to your poetry (or this poem)?

In poetry, and contemporary poetry in particular, I think that the
pairing of disparate words and contrasting language is a common
strategy. The goal, I’m pretty sure is to be evocative, but often it
results in obfuscation. You could say the same about the very title
and subject of this poem.  I understand that an initial reaction may
be something along the lines of, what the hell is a “clockwork dog”
anyway? Well, I don’t want my reader surrounded by a jangle of words,
so while the exact form of the dog is left to the reader, by the end
they have an idea of this dog’s motivations, and I think would agree
that he is a “good dog.” So rather than discord, in this and other
pieces I work to create chords from unlikely notes.

There is also an aggressive use of range in this piece –
running the reader from a ‘tornado’ to a ‘merry-go-round’ – can you talk to us about what you hope this scaled-variation will do to
readers?

Simply, the range makes the poem livelier and more engaging. The
reader has the opportunity to fit their own rotations and clocks
somewhere between bottle caps and planets, and make their own personal
connections to time with the Clockwork Dog as a guide. . .

For the full interview visit the Monkeybicycle blog and and to read more by Ori Fienberg check out our reprint of his sequence “Collectors

Mother’s Day

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We probably don’t say it enough. But we’re thinking it. Gage and I just want to take some time and say thank you to our mothers. Thank you for, you know, everything. The love. The support. The understanding. All of it. Thank you.

We also want to say thank you to those who, while not biological, have acted mothers to us. You are important too because sometimes we need to hear it from someone else before it sinks in!

Thank you all. We love you.

~Dash & Gage

On Teaching Well

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This Thursday, I asked five educators to bring a sample of their writing to a professional development session so that we could do some writing exercises.  I gave them a handout on passive verbs and another on the 19 most common grammatical errors, and started by asking them to circle their passive verbs and change the sentences.  When I introduced this exercise, I was as careful and gentle as I am with students:  with students, I do not want to further injure their already low confidence.  With educators, I must guard their egos.   So I told people to take their time, to ask me for help, that whatever work they produced was perfect.  Several people, including a man who has challenged me frequently in the past, could not change their sentences.  We discussed it briefly, and then moved on to identifying subjects and verbs, and then identifying clauses.  Again, people struggled.  Again, I gently encouraged, made corrections, joked a bit.  But as people started to gather their papers to leave (probably with a good amount of relief), I said, imagine how our students feel.

THE PROBLEM

Imagine how our students, who have been failed again and again by an educational system that sees them as numbers and teachers who fear to roll up their sleeves and interact with them, feel.  Teaching is not supposed to instill fear, shame, or humiliation.  Students are not supposed to learn alone, or never make mistakes, or fear that making a mistake will lead to humilation.  But too often, that is exactly what education means.  Too often, a well meaning teacher brings in a worksheet, passes it out, and tells students to follow the directions.  But often, there is never interplay, room for error, or freedom from fear.

THE SOLUTION

When I teach someone something, I create an organized, structured, exercise.  I tell students what and why we are doing something:   Sometimes I use what others have done, sometimes I make it up.  I know if I want students to learn, I must immerse them in an experience.  I do not say, fix your passive verbs.  I discuss how changing passive verbs can enliven writing and eliminate error.  I do some examples from the students own work, showing them that I too fumble and need to think and scratch out words to do the exercise.  Then I ask them to try, and walk around, and help people when and where they are stuck.

To do all this, I need to ensure students feel safe–no safety, no learning.  This is done with my body language, the words I use, allowing mistakes without penalty, and assuming that my students are trying as hard as they can.  Students respond to safety.  Students respond to praise.  Students respond to someone saying, see, look what you did here!  That’s great!  Now apply what you did to that sentence to this sentence.   Students respond to questions:  so who or what is the actor?  If you are writing, hip hop artists are doomed, who or what is dooming them?  Oh, the desire for material wealth?  Ok, so try that:  the desire for material wealth dooms hip hop artists.  This exchange is gentle, kind, but passionate and engaged too–and students need and deserve our full engagement with them.

THE REASON

When I show patience, kindness, enthusiasm, encouragement and passion, students learn, and find learning relates to what they need to know.  The magic ingredient of teaching is not knowledge although knowledge is critical.  It is not organization although this too is critical.   It is to judge all students as deserving of respect and caring, and giving it to them, day by day, in my interactions with them.

Although I am gentle with students, I am not adverse to asking hard questions or pushing against resistance.  But if a student resists, I don’t force my way through it; I address that instead.  Why do you hate writing?  Who told you you could not write?  Just this week, a resisting student related she had been held back in 3rd grade because her 3rd grade teacher would not help her write well, and she has hated writing and resisted ever since.  So I suggested she write a letter to that teacher, expressing all the fury and rage and humiliation she felt, and then burn it.  Or show it to me.  So then, we could get on with the business of learning writing.

I think this strategy is similar to Japanese philosophy:  the rod breaks while the reed bends.  I try to be the reed, but to never, ever, be the teacher who simply surrenders on a student.

No one taught me to be this way.  Honestly, I do not know why I am this way.  But it is my best trait as a teacher, and I dearly wish all teachers had this.  It seems the great ones do.  My tutors, for example, in their very different styles, show this same level of engagement and caring–whether through joking, prodding, passion, fury on behalf of a student because of a knuckle-headed teacher, intensity, or force of personality, have created what some would deem miracles of learning.

But we know better:  we know it is the engagement with our students wherever they are that leads to trust, and trust leads to learning.  It is ineffable, this quality, and shows many faces:  but the results are always the same–smiling, encouraged students who have learned something today.

Upgrading my Character: Job Search as a Video Game

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Here at Phreelance Writers we love beating horses. Especially if they’re dead. With that, let me talk about jobs and such. I’ve already explained my desire to leave my current position and since then some interesting things have happened. My job search has taken on new dimensions and gone into areas that I previously thought off limits or out of bounds. While I’m curious to see where these paths take me, I’m also wary that I’m straying too far away from my original desires. But at the same time there is a level of excitement associated with where these new paths could lead.

I keep thinging of this video game that  Gage and I have played. The game, a role-playing game, involved a lot of character development through assigning earned points to various skills and attributes. The points were earned by completing missions. As you upgraded your character, new skills became available depending on how you had allocated the points on the various skills and attributes. Gage and I would discuss how we each develped and molded our character to represent the ways we enjoyed taking on the challanges of the game. Gage had developed his into a long-range fighter, complete with sniper weapons attributes that made his character hard to target. I had created a melee character, full of health bonuses and attack damage multipliers.

I  find myself thinking in terms of collecting skills and attributes. These new avenues in my job search represent a chance to gain new skillsets and strengthen various attributes that I considered too weak to be useful. I am my character now. I’m looking for missions (i.e. continued education) to complete so that I can add those earned points to my already bolstered skill and attribute set and become even more powerful (read: more employable).

When I view my job search as a game, I laugh because it’s much more serious than that, but at the same time the comparison makes sense to me. This view helps renew my interest and desire to push through those moments that I can’t beat, those times when I feel like giving up. As any gamer can tell you, you strive for 100% completion. Everything earned, everything unlocked. The perfect character. The ultimate ending.

What’s is 100% completion for me? Good question. I’m honestly not sure. But I feel like it’s something that will just happen. I doubt I’ll be aware of it until much later. I like the idea of that because it means it’s a persistant state. Unlike video games, where you reach the end, watch final cut scene and then are asked if you want to do it again (replay value), in the real world you just stay in that moment of perfection forever.

The Revolution

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A while ago, Adam Walker did an impromptu performance of one of his favorite poems, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, by Gill Scott Heron and a response poem he wrote. Dash happened to be on the ball enough to get it on “film.” Check it out!

Betrayal: Easter Poem

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How quickly they turned against Him! One day exalting Him with chants of Hosanna, Hosanna. The Next hurling insults and hatred at Him, as it was written: “He who will destroy the temple and build it in three days.”

Could they have forgotten? Might they not have heard? Were they not there when he fed the 5000? Did they not see the lame man walk? Had they not witnessed Him perform miracle after miracle after miracle! Did they honestly believe that he couldn’t when they said to him: “Save thyself and come down from the cross.”

What could have sparked such a sudden change? What could make them hate this pure vessel so much, a King who thought it not to lowly of himself to give his life for us! It was they that were always there. The leaders of the naysayers, the kings of the hypocrites, the power hungry, money hungry, Pharisees and Sadducees. As it is written: “He saved others but Himself He cannot save.”

Was the wine at the wedding a myth? Or was it not enough of a testimony in itself for the blind to be able to see! If nothing more, they could have asked Lazarus about the magnitude of his power!!

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