Like most of us, I spent the requisite twelve years in public education learning to read, multiply fractions, and write complete sentences with end punctuation. I allowed myself four years to earn a college degree and a teaching certificate and tacked on a couple more for a master’s and some extra hours. A long teaching career significantly upped the total years I spent in my all-time favorite place to be. Recently I whimsically converted years to hours. Give or take snow days, sick days, a couple random days for state tournaments – and those two classes I cut in college – the total came to a whopping 10,000 hours. Wow! 10,000 hours in the classroom! I had to take a nap …
That numerical representation of my life’s work brought into focus the nature of many of those hours. Unfortunately, no matter the appeal or importance of any given course, mere adherence to agenda invites the humdrum of routine.
Yes, I experienced plenty of mundane in those 10,000 hours – on both sides of the desk. Early on I completed page after page in my Think-and-Do workbook or wrote troublesome spelling words multiple times. In high school we spent too much time listening to each other read assigned chapters aloud. And my interest was rarely piqued nor my mind challenged in college by all-too-frequently droned lectures. Although I came to realize every lesson should be delivered and received with energy and enthusiasm, it remains that the drumbeat of the regular lends itself to the routine.
However, school was not all mindless repetition and rote information delivery. There were exciting days, memorable lessons, meaningful learning outcomes. The day I learned to read still ranks at the top of my educational hall of fame. In the fourth grade Mrs. Calland introduced me to the land of grammar – where I still happily reside – populated as it still is with nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. In high school Mr. Wilson intimidated me into loving algebra, and Isabell Lash shaped my future by teaching literature and language arts in themed units. The absolute apex of my college years was that quarter in Germany!
Eventually it dawned on me that all students learned more if they all were involved in active learning for the entire class period. Practice at the board, with a partner, on individual whiteboards increased engagement and brought a certain energy to the classroom. So did vocabulary study ending with the practice of German table manners on real food. And games of Jeopardy! livened test review, making it more effective. In the upper levels, Saturday Night Live skits performed in German were popular. I especially remember Mr. Bill, and German 4 students even entered the school talent show with their rendition of Mama’s Family – in German of course!
Every year I took my show on the road to the biggest classroom of all: the entire country of Germany, its cities and schools and homes. I taught many a vocabulary lesson on the streets of Berlin, Munich, and Springe; and lessons abounded at the Dachau Concentration Camp and the Berlin Wall. Daily, spontaneous situations occurring with host families and in Otto-Hahn classrooms could never have been recorded in any lesson plan book.
Of course, only a few kids could travel with me each year, but I wanted all my students to benefit from the return visit of the German kids in the fall. Our annual rally book project accomplished just that.
Essentially, our guests created a scavenger-hunt scrapbook of 25 items suggested by my third-and-fourth-year students to highlight local, state, and national aspects. Items variously included a buckeye leaf, an Ohio Caverns postcard, the lyrics of the alma mater, a presidential campaign button, the signature of a member of the Homecoming court. Students from German 1 and 2 perused the finished products; the kids in 3 and 4 judged them. The Americans had the opportunity to see our culture reflected through the eyes of kids from Europe, and the Germans returned home with a one-of-a-kind travel album.
The most cherished classroom experience of my 10,000 hours involved a sweet but shy six-grader at the Graham Digital Academy. We worked on her reading skills: troublesome sight words, flat reading expression, lack of confidence. But mostly we just read together, talked about what we read, enjoyed what we read.
A few years later, to celebrate her final semester at GDA and to nudge her even further, I designed a special culminating project just for her. With the district’s retired reading supervisor and a former-student-now-kindergarten-teacher, I arranged weekly trips to the elementary building for her. Each week she read a book to the kindergarten class – with expression – and then worked on reading with small groups of the kiddies.
What a success! For the first time she found herself in a leadership position, able to empathize with any reading problems that arose. And I had accomplished at least once in my career what I wish we could accomplish for each and every student – to give the individualized instruction each needs and deserves when he/she needs it for as long as he/she needs it.
These days when I reminisce about my 10,000 hours, the tedious, the ho-hum, the banal fall away – as I recall with pure pleasure and in great detail so many especially memorable hours I spent in the classroom with my teachers and my students.