Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Essence of Time

Time has taken on an entirely different meaning since the birth of my daughter. Not only is the time of day (especially on weekends) somewhat irrelevant, but time also passes and feels differently than it once did. Sleeping for a few hours at a time can be just as good as a night filled with slumber. Time goes quickly-- didn't I just change her diaper? Time is more precious, too. I try to get as much done as effectively and efficiently as possible so as to get home before the sun sets. Spending time with my daughter and wife is the most important part of my day.

I have come to realize that I do not have time to waste.

But, it's not enough to just spend time with them; I want to spend quality time with them. For instance, I'd rather hold Elizabeth than just be in the same room with her. I'd rather talk to my wife about her day than just passively watch another Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I can hold Elizabeth in my arms while talking on the phone or packing my lunch (which takes a bit more than when I use both hands); however, I'd much rather watch her track me with her eyes, read her stories or pat her back to soothe a cry or encourage a burp. I am happy to at least be present. Just like there's a difference between lying down and sleeping, there's a difference between being present and being engaged.

Not to sound silly, but there's a difference between the level of commitment of the chicken and the pig in an eggs and bacon breakfast: the chicken was involved, the pig was committed.

When it comes to husbandry and fatherhood, I do not want to just be involved, I'd much rather be committed.

The same goes for my role as an educator. It's not enough just to keep students busy. It's also not enough just to cover the material. When it comes to teaching, we must be concerned with both the time on task of our students as well as the nature of the tasks on which we are asking them to spend time. Yes, we need to keep students busy; but, we must keep them busy on work that is worth doing.

One of the biggest indicators of student success is their time on task. The more that students are actively engaged throughout the course of a lesson or day, the more they are likely to have learned. This is extremely logical. If students are only on task for 4 out of their 8 hours in school, at the very best they can only learn 4 hours worth of material. Bump up the amount of time that students are being taught, working on labs, participating in discussions and producing work, and you will also increase the amount of learning taking place.

Similarly, we must ensure that this time spent on task is done on more than mere busy work. Learning must be focused on student-centered objectives. Activities must relate back to those objectives and lead to accomplishing others. Lessons should both spiral and scaffold, reviewing past concepts prior to introducing new ones and teaching lower order thinking skills (i.e. define, list, recognize) prior to reaching for higher ones (i.e. analyzing, synthesizing, comparing/contrasting, creating). In the end, students must be able to use their new knowledge in meaningful ways. Units should not necessarily end with a chapter test and the material forgotten after obtaining a particular grade. Students' knowledge should extend beyond the walls of the classroom and school and prepare them for a future of positively impacting our world.

None of this can be accomplished just by running in place or spinning our wheels through worksheets, end of the chapter questions and taking notes off of an overhead. An involved and well behaved group of students is a good first step, but it does not necessarily indicate the occurence of great learning. Not all students learn visually or audibly. Some require moving around (bodily-kinesthetic), incorporating music, working with others (interpersonal) or other non-traditional strategies to learn.

When it comes to education (or parenthood or even being married) time is of the essence. It's not enough to just be involved or present. We must take our presence a step further and be committed and engaged. Doing the first can lead to good things; doing the second can lead to incredible ones.

We must recognize that the essence of time is that it is a gift too valuable to waste.

Just be sure to make time for breakfast, even if it's just eggs with biscuits and gravy...unless, of course, it's chicken flavored.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's Not About You

Last Friday, October 29 at 8:34 p.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, Elizabeth Anne Zelenka. Three things occurred to me at this moment:
1. There must be a benevolent God
2. I've never been more in love with my wife, Emily and
3. My life will never be the same.

While I won't bore you with the details of my reaffirmed faith in an Almighty, Loving Creator God, or how my love for my wife intensified because of the strength and love she showed throughout the labor process, I will focus on how my life, at that moment, was forever changed.

The night of Elizabeth's birth was a prime example of how my life is no longer about me. As I'm sure all parents can attest, that night was filled with tests and check-ups and heating lamps and measurements and inconsolable cries. In fact, our night was so jammed packed with activity that it was well after 3 a.m. on Saturday morning before mom, dad and baby finally got to sleep. The next day came just as quickly as the previous night was long, by 6 a.m. the Zelenka family was up once again and tending to her many hospital visitors.

Our 2nd "night" as parents was just as sleepless. But, even in a completely sleep exhausted state at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, holding on to my frantically crying daughter, I could almost hear God whisper to me, "Mike, it's not about you anymore." I knew I had to put my own need for sleep aside and instead focus on Elizabeth.

Our days and nights since our three night, two day stint in the hospital have calmed significantly, and Elizabeth, like her mother, holds the key to my heart. I absolutely adore her. So, even though my sleeplessness (and cluelessness) has dwindled, this idea of my life not being about me anymore has lingered.

During my prayer and reflection time over the past four days I have also come to sense a connection between my musing on fatherhood and my other vocation as a Catholic educator: "Mike, it's not about you."

I issue this same message to all Catholic educators-- teachers, administrators, support staff, even parents-- everywhere: "It's not about you."

Teaching must be centered on the student. Gone are the days of a taught curriculum, where the teacher merely covers the material, with little to no regard for individual student performance (that's what Bell Curves are for, right?). Instead, students must learn the material at hand. The central focus of a classroom cannot be the teacher/teaching; it must be the student/learning.

This approach to education puts aside many "old school" tactics: teachers lecturing from a podium and students passively taking notes, punitive pop quizzes meant to "get back" at students, failed tests being dismissed as a lack of student preparation ("I taught the material all last week!") and covering material from a textbook in straight succession from the introduction on page xiv to page 367.

The needs, backgrounds, abilities and temperaments of students must take precedence over the desires of the teacher, or any adult in the educational setting. Teachers must overcome tiredness, angry parents, riffs with colleagues and administrators, or a distaste for a particular subject for the good of student learning.

Time on task has a huge impact on student learning-- it must be maximized and not wasted on an abundance of study halls, homework time during class, or parties for every "holiday". The dignity and value of the student as a child of God must always be maintained, especially during disciplinary situations. Teachers must identify the ways that students, individually, best learn and differentiate their instruction so as to touch on these many and varied multiple intelligences. Lessons need to be analyzed, reorganized, and re-taught based on student performance. Each and every student must be challenged yet given the necessary supports to succeed.

When it comes to education, adults (teachers/administration/support staff and parents alike) must put aside their own egos and focus on the good of the child(ren). Because, much like being a parent, as a teacher it's not about, and can't ever be about, you.