The teacher has been taught – guest post by Dominic

Today’s blog post is brought to you by NP MKE faithful, Dominic Inouye. Dom has been coming to November Project for a few months now and has become a staple at every workout. He brings great energy, infectious enthusiasm and is just a really good dude. Dom is a school teacher and shares with us what November Project has taught him about himself, and his teaching. 
For the entire month of July and now into August, I’ve been participating in a free, early morning workout program offered in 17 cities in North America, including my hometown of Milwaukee.  It was founded in Boston as a way to get people to exercise during the cold winter months–and exercise they do.

It’s called November Project, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about what else?  My teaching.

On Wednesdays at 6:26 am (not sure why, but it’s been said that it’s easier to remember appointments if the time isn’t on the :00, :15, :30, or :45–somehow the novelty sticks better in the neural pathways), 50-100 Milwaukeeans of all shapes and sizes, ages and abilities, gather at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln statue at our War Memorial, a fitting place to celebrate our freedom to gather peaceably, enjoy each other as community (in fact, each city is dubbed a different “Tribe”), have fun, push ourselves and each other to our personal bests, grit our teeth, grunt, and sweat our butts off (well, not literally, because that would be downright weird) for almost an hour.

Each session begins in a circle, shoulder to shoulder (breaking down some people’s comfort zones right away), and the celebration of each new member, who steps into the circle, announces their name, to which everyone else greets them and claps two times (I know, it’s like summer camp all over again–but what fun?).  Then warm-ups commence, everything from the traditional to the goofy (we played musical chair sit-ups last time).

We enter into new and crazy challenges each session: one day we’re doing laps that involve five sets of stairs, planks, and push-ups, another we’re racing up hills of various slopes, playing freeze tag, and doing lunges.  Sometimes we’re solo, sometimes in partners, sometimes all one Tribe.  On Wednesdays we’re at the War Memorial, on Friday’s we’re exploring the city with our feet (e.g., running or leaping like frogs), our hands (e.g., partner push-ups or stair salamanders), and our eyes–each morning this summer has been breathtakingly beautiful, with sunrises over the beach, the highest point in the city, or our River Walk.  The time may not allow me to get to school 45-minutes away on time (though I may make an argument to my Headmaster that I should be allowed to be late when I don’t have classes first period!), but I know that the Tribe plays in the fall rain and the winter snow, as well.  I will be bummed if I have to miss that (as much as I typically loathe winter).

Our Tribe leaders encourage us along the way, push us harder and harder, constantly acknowledge that we’re all at different levels (I can run 8 laps in 30 minutes, while others are running 4 or 12, for instance), and encourage us when they see us doing something well. (“You look like you run stairs!” Daniel told me the other day.  That’s good, because I was, indeed, running stairs very fast, hoping not to take a spill like the days of my cast-and-crutch-filled youth.)

And each session ends with “five sweaty hugs,” lots of high fives and compliments about how well everyone pushed themselves that day, “see you next time”s, the conferral of the Positivity Award (which appears to be a baton), and a group photo (the hour is documented with action shots each time and celebrated on the Facebook page).

So, my teaching.  Our teaching.  Why can’t all my classes, our classes, be like November Project? 

How can we designed our classes around the fact that students come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities (academically speaking)?

How can they be about meeting students where they are and getting them psyched up enough that they set their own goals as well as try to meet the standards of our classes?

How can we create community–not just a sense of community, but true community–within each class, between classes, with parents, with the larger community?

How can classes begin with individual recognition and engaging warm-ups, enter into instruction, individual and small group work and large group work, goal setting, learning and personal improvement, and end with recognition of successes and more goal setting?

How can they be fun and involve play and still challenge students to grit, grunt, and sweat (academically speaking)?

How can we establish rhythms and expectations but also change course and surprise?

How can our classes be about guiding students out of their comfort zones and even out of the classroom (either physically or virtually or by transforming their worldview), connecting them to real-world experiences?

Shouldn’t they be places of encouragement and recognition, instead of places where they only learn how “bad” they are at something (with letters and numbers and percentages)–but also places where they learn how to improve and are aware of their improvements?

And how can students document their own learning (e.g., learning growth portfolios)and how can we as teachers document the class community experience (e.g., bulletin boards, blogs, phone calls to parents, public events)?

I feel like this list could go on and on.  And it’s not like any of this is new.  But I know that my classroom is not always like this, so in one way, November Project has brought these good practices to the forefront of my mind as I prepare for another school year.

As I draw to a conclusion (I hear the “stop bell” that November Project uses, which is always a welcome sound after non-stop movement for 30 minutes!), I recently acknowledged the following to myself and shared it with a family member, who works as a fitness coach.  Growing up, I never considered myself an athlete, let alone a “jock.”  In fact, Ienvied people in that “tribe.”  I was skinny (my mom called me “string bean”) and did weird things like wear shorts under my pants to create the illusion that one couldn’t, indeed, wrap their hands around my thighs.  I seem to have always had my nose buried in my homework (which paid off academically, of course) or a project or guitar lessons.  I never participated in organized sports, though I considered joining the tennis team in high school (decided against it, fearing humiliation) and the rowing team in college (decided against it, fearing early morning practices).  I was never even a sports fan; I know the difference between football, baseball, and soccer, but could tell you about 10% of what those athletes are actually doing, using real sports vocabulary, at least.

Circa 1985 . . . the Middle School years.

Now that I’m almost 42, I have no desire to be called a “jock,” which I’ll never be.   It’s not about that. But what November Project has helped me realize–with its one-size-doesn’t-fit-all and it’s PR (that’s “personal record” in athlete lingo, I know now) philosophies–is that I’ve always been an athlete.  In fact, everyone who does anything beyondwalking could almost be described as an athlete.  My family and I would jog 3 miles around Seattle’s Green Lake, take miles-long walks or bike rides through Discovery Park; I took swimming lessons for years and did short stints with karate and ballet; my dad set up a gym in the basement where I’d work out with my best friend Rick, and Rick and our friends would go on hikes on Mt. Rainier or 50-mile-long bike rides with one of our favorite teachers; my family would hike as well, sometimes to hunt for mushrooms and other exotic Japanese delicacies, sometimes for the endurance factor (my favorite photo of myself is one of me hiking on Mt. Rainier, in fact, on my crutches); I went ballroom dancing with girlfriends for years and still love to get my groove on (hours of pulsating dance music can really work off the calories and tone the abs).  I’ve always been an athlete.  Lately, I’ve been trying to bike on the weekends with my partner, who loves to set goals for us (“Let’s bike for 3 hours” or “Let’s hit 30 miles”).  And all those people at November Project who are slower than me or who get winded faster or who struggle with their push-ups more–they’re all athletes, too.  Why can’t all our students, then, realize that they are all learners, that they’re all writers or readers or mathematicians or scientists, that they all have potentials that can be activated?  They should all be able to realize–and be told by us, their teachers, their mentors–that despite their learning differences, they can and should all succeed in their different ways.  I can–so far–only finish a 5K (with difficulty), while so many others in the Tribe have done 10K’s, half marathons, or full marathons.  Good for them.
And good for me.  November Project has helped me embrace my skinniness (let’s call it “lean and toned”), my limits, and where I want to go.

Circa 1994 . . . on Mt. Rainier.

Finally, I’ve been able to observe my growth (more in a later post about our English Department’s pilot Portfolio Program, which will be all about growth), physically and mentally.  I can see calves re-emerging and slightly thicker ankles.  My thighs are tightening.  My arms . . .  well, we don’t work out our arms as much, so I need to go to the actual gym more often.  My torso has a nicer profile.  I like seeing this development and am using it to motivate myself.  Mentally, I am surely a different person–not perfect, but a different person.  I look forward eagerly to every Wednesday and Friday.  I’ve changed my eating habits (which are already pretty good–farmer’s markets!), especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and have added energizing banana-chia pudding to my Wednesday and Friday breakfast (and have all but sworn off Red Bull, thanks to the fitness coach family member I mentioned above).  I treated myself to new workout clothes, which (yes, I’m vain) make me feel good mentally–and look good!  And I’ve begun, slowly but surely, to push myself harder and harder: one day I biked to the War Memorial from my house (40 minutes), did November Project, then biked back; another day I came home from November project, ran 2.4 miles to the gym, worked out (arms), then ran home.  And the extra rewards?

No one in 41 years has ever met me for the first time and asked “Do you work out?”, but those were the first words that came out of his mouth after he shook my hand in his office.  I wanted to hug him.

And no one has ever called me a “beast”–until recently.

It’s this measured growth and personal goal setting, along with the fun and the engaging, that I want to be all about during this upcoming school year–personally, as a teacher, and with my students.  I want to ask them “Are you a reader?  Are you a writer?  Are you a thinker?” and to have them respond in the affirmative with enthusiasm and self-knowledge.  I want them to be academic “beasts.”

Thanks in part to November Project, I think I know how to get them there.

 

Dom’s post can be found on www.edstructure.org

 

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