Building experiences to mine

June 17th, 2013 | Filed under: teaching

As a teacher I have long understood and promoted the idea that to teach something you have to be able to do that thing. I’m not saying you have to be the world’s best writer, historian, athlete, musician, etc. to teach those subjects, but you need the experiences of doing those things to understand what it is like to be a novice.

This fact is best demonstrated by university professors. Some of my university professors were incredible experts in their fields, academics with published articles, and authors with stories and poems appearing in literary journals. However, those achievements said nothing of their teaching practice*. In fact, some of my most important experiences as a bachelor’s degree candidate were sitting in the offices of TAs, conferring about my work and getting feedback, not sitting in a crowded lecture hall listening to my professor. It’s true – I did have some incredible teachers in university that were both experts in their fields and great at teaching. But they are rare.

As is often the case with blogs, I’m getting ready to admit something shameful. I’m not fishing for comforting comments and compliments in this post, though you are free and welcome to dish them out. I am writing this to admit what I think is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching – that through the act of teaching and all the things that come along with that, we often forget to work on the craft we teach. Our subject knowledge often grows dull, edged out by “all that we have to do” in our jobs. We teach our way out of the subject that we love, becoming cliches with stories that gather dust and lose credibility with every new crop of students.

writing in her journal

Photo "writing in her journal" CC-licensed by Flickr user Susan NYC

I realized that I had put a vast distance between me and the most important subjects I teach. My goal when I walk into the classroom is to support students in becoming strong readers and writers. However, I was doing neither of those things. I always had too much to do – too many papers to mark, too many units to plan, too many administrative details to tend to. My teaching has suffered. I realized over the last few months that the only reading I was really doing was for work and the only writing I was producing came in the form of tweets, e-mails, unit plans, and assignment sheets. I have lost my way.

So, in the face of such an embarrassing realization, I hunkered down with a few good books and gorged myself on them. I plowed through four books in the last week (American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, if you’re wondering). It felt amazing. I was reading just because. Granted, I did want to explore these texts further to consider them for inclusion in our language arts curriculum, so technically this was tangentially related to work, but I enjoyed it. I loved it, even!

I discovered this past week that I was mining my reading life for lessons on what it means to be a reader. I saw opportunities to share mentor sentences, to demonstrate allusion and irony, to explain what it feels like to make connections while reading. I needed to be doing this. If I ever want to be a good teacher of reading, shouldn’t I be the reader I want to see in the world? Forgive me, Gandhi.

Katie Wood Ray in What You Know by Heart talks about mining your writing life for lessons in teaching writing. It’s a fabulous idea and makes a lot of sense…if you have a writing life. As I’ve been reading through this book, I’ve felt twinges of guilt and shame about the writer I wanted to be and thought I could be. I was a newspaper reporter before I began this teaching journey and for a short time I really was a writer. However, making that skill my job took the romance out of it for me and maybe that’s why I’ve shied away from it ever since. I think I’ve been afraid to let that piece of myself, buried away for so long, come out and be a part of my work life again. If I keep it buried and hidden, I don’t have to face the hard work involved. I can just have nostalgia for a dream that never happened and call it a day.

But I suppose if I want to be a teacher of writing, I can’t keep it hidden any longer. When my students ask me to share a piece of my writing with them, I want to be ready and able to do so – willing, even. Speaking from my growing-ever-distant memories of writing is no longer cutting it. The experiences are too far removed from my life now and my teaching is not what it could be for this time.

Just as I did with my reading life, I’m taking some steps to rebuild my writing life. This summer I’m starting a writer’s notebook and I have signed up for the #TeachersWrite virtual summer writing workshop. I will be in the U.S., traveling and visiting friends and family, and I want to use some of that Virginia sunshine to cultivate writing experiences. I’m not sure what form anything will take or how successful I will be, but my goal right now is just to start and we’ll see where it goes from there.

*If you are interested in a hilarious and decidedly NSFW example of this phenomenon in secondary physical education, check out the T.V. show Eastbound & Down and keep an eye out for Kenny Powers.

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When boundaries don’t protect

May 20th, 2013 | Filed under: teaching

I’ve begun reading What You Know by Heart by Katie Wood Ray. It was a glorious feeling to crack open a new professional book and not feel guilty that I should be working on my master’s degree. Many of my colleagues have asked me how it feels to be “finished” with such an undertaking and I often can’t tell a major difference in my life. However, it is in these small moments – such as opening a book that has been gathering dust on my shelf and piquing my curiosity – that I can tell that I’m done.

I’m only in the first chapter, but so far Ray has provoked my thinking with rhetorical questions about how much I let my students see of my “human side.” She is discussing the human side of writing – the feelings that are evoked during the process of writing – and how important it is to let students see this. It got me thinking about the human side of our teaching selves in general.


Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user exfordy.

In my first real teaching gig, I didn’t let students see my human side. I had been told how important it was to be strict and to not make friends with students and to wear high-heels because I was smaller than the students (seriously). I took on a persona that smiled and welcomed students into the room, but that didn’t warm up to them for fear of letting them get too close. I had been advised to be suspect of students and their friendly nature – that they would take advantage of me. I had my guard up. They saw straight through it and could feel the burn of that suspicion. They could see that I wasn’t being honest with them about who I was and to this day it is a great regret.

I am not the stern, strict teacher that people said I should have been. I am fair and have high expectations, certainly, but I’m more of a nerdy, self-deprecating, funny weirdo. I hid that part of myself from those students in the first year and as a result, never connected with them. Now that I am letting myself be myself in the classroom, I have deeper connections with my students than ever before. I tell them about my personal life and show them pictures of my cats. They know I have a boyfriend and a little brother. They know I like cooking. I’ve revealed my human side in an appropriate way without compromising my professionalism and I am a better teacher – and person – because of it.

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Reading the gender binary

April 21st, 2011 | Filed under: teaching
Books for all children

Should we abandon the idea of boy- and girl-friendly texts?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of teaching to boys and teaching to girls. I even had my mom bring over my battered copy of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys from the states. My worry is that through these ideas – of accentuating the gender binary in our pedagogical strategies – that we might be enforcing this binary and pushing kids that don’t fit into it further into the fringe. Photo by sleepyneko.

I’m not the most well-read when it comes to YA lit, which is one of the many reasons I adore and appreciate and never take for granted the wonders of librarians. I depend on them and seek them out when I need recommendations or ideas of how to engage a student. Maybe the librarian even knows this student and can give me some ideas about what he might like. I get that it is much easier to describe texts with terms like “boy-friendly” or “girl-friendly.” It’s important to get boys reading. I will never dispute that. But I wonder if it’s more important for us to frame this as getting children reading and abandon this binary.

Thanks to amazing programs and a society with more and more progressive leaders, children are feeling more empowered to come out as whoever they might be. Young girls are coming out as lesbians at an earlier age. Boys are coming out as gay. Children are self-identifying as genders other than the ones they were assigned at birth. And then there are those “tom-boys” and “sensitive guys” that don’t fit the ideas of what publishers deem “boy-friendly.” What about all of these kids?

As a woman I know I’m often offended at the assumption I love rom-coms and tear-jerker films…or that I love jokes about high heels and how “men just don’t get it.” I don’t, for the record. I like documentaries and funny movies and sci-fi. I like comic books. I love RPG video games, but don’t like first-person shooters and things like Call of Duty. I love computers and technology and reading about science. But then again I also love cooking and read food blogs. I love knitting and arts and crafts. I enjoy surrounding myself with artists and designers. I despise clothing and shoe shopping, but like going to the hardware store and DIY projects. I liked R.L. Stine books as a child, but could never get into The Babysitter’s Club, though I had been known to read a few Sweet Valley High books. So…what book might a publishing company recommend for me?

People are complex and children are even more complex as they explore their identities and try to pinpoint who they are and who they want to become. Labels are helpful and make parts of our jobs easier, but they can dehumanize and mask the personality nuances that could allow us to see the real child hiding underneath. The girl that loves to knit but watches sci-fi and likes weilding a handsaw. Or the boy that loves to read fashion magazines, watch Top Model, and is captain of his soccer team.

I attended an ALAN convention once and sought out an LGBT workshop. This is a passion of mine and has been since I started on this teaching journey. I want every child to feel welcome and comfortable in my classroom – not ashamed or afraid to be who he or she or ze wants to be. It was refreshing to hear that authors were moving from books with the expected LGBT themes of coming out to including characters who are amazing and complex and who just happen to be gay. We as educators also need to look for books like these. Consider titles that include diverse characters – diverse in race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. I’ve been thinking a great deal about these things as I have been charged with developing language arts curriculum and selecting books for the new international school I’m helping to open this fall. I feel a heavy weight of responsibility as I do this – not something I’m taking lightly – and something I’m seeking the help of others in doing because I know it’s dangerous to have one person make all of these choices. One person with biases, ideas, and perspectives.

So how do we do this? How does our language and how we label text effect the ways in which we help students (all students) learn and experience our classrooms?

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My first taste of YA lit

December 29th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

I’ve never been one to get into arguments over whether we should be teaching the classics exclusively in schools or if we should let some young adult fiction jump into the curriculum mix. It always seemed like a no-brainer and a waste of our time to argue the point, because to me if a student is reading she’s already in the game. I’m focused on getting kids to pick up a book in the first place. Once that happens, then I’ll tackle getting them to delve into Shakespeare or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But, even though I’ve said these things and learned a great deal about the use of YA lit successfully in classrooms (my methods teacher during my licensure program was a big proponent of using YA lit), I’ve never really read any of it on my own. I’m not sure what was keeping me from cracking open one of these quick and often fulfilling reads, but I never had before this week. I taught a bit of Lawrence Yep to some sixth graders while working as a long-term substitute – we were reading Dragonwings – and Monster by Walter Dean Myers for my methods class, but that’s about it. My knowledge of YA lit was limited to big names like Laurie Halse Anderson and of course Harry Potter and Twilight. Then there was the mountain of YA titles. If I decided to read something, where would I even start?

A group of teachers I follow on Twitter instituted a #bookaday hashtag on Twitter where they would tackle reading, as you guessed, a book a day during their holiday breaks. I’m a slow reader and didn’t want to dedicate myself to a book a day since I would be planted on the couch for half of each day. Sure, I already do that sometimes since I’m not working (yet), but I try to avoid it.

One title I haven’t been able to avoid through tweets and blog posts is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I decided to read the first in the three-part series late last week and breezed through it. I felt that sense of wonder and suspense and connection to the characters, something I rarely experience in reading. The last time I felt this compelled by a book was my first time reading A Confederacy of Dunces. Something about Ignatius J. Reilly still tugs at my heart and leaves me thinking and I read the book nearly ten years ago. Sure, there are books I get into and can’t put down, but a true connection to a characters is something very rare for me in reading. I felt this with Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. I’ve only read the first book and am making myself read a “grown up” book in between this and the next part in the series. (I just started White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which given its nearly 500 pages of luscious wordsmithery means it will probably be a little while before I allow myself to tackle the second Hunger Games book Catching Fire.)

I don’t know why I feel this way, but even though Collins’ book is full of serious and teachable themes, such as the influence of reality television on our lives, poverty, and class struggles to name a few, I felt a little tinge of guilt in reading the book. I enjoyed it so much and it falls under that addictive category of young adult fantasy lit that I suppose I felt guilty about not challenging myself with a tougher read. But why do I feel this way? I can’t help but think this comes from years of education where the classics were elevated to royal status and only those that read them could feel proud and “well-read.” Beach reads, chick lit, fantasy, sci-fi, those were never considered “literature.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I definitely see a difference between The Devil Wears Prada and Ulysses – not everything is literature. But I hate the shame that has been tacked onto understanding the difference. If I feel this way, even after leaving high school nearly 10 years ago, how do our students feel?

There was a lively debate on The English Companion Ning recently about “kids reading junk,” and the junk being things like Harry Potter and Twilight. Sure, Harry Potter may not be comparable to 100 Years of Solitude, but shame on the person that sees thousands of children picking up and reading 400+ page books as a bad thing. Reading begets reading and results in learning. We all have our different avenues we ventured down that brought us to avid reading and very rarely were we pre-teens flipping through Dante’s Inferno. I got into serious reading (meaning I did it every day) when I started picking up R.L. Stine books. They were quick, thrilling reads and my 11-year-old self felt quite accomplished as I counted the number of “whole books” I’d read. From there, as I got older, I wanted to pick up “the classics” and read them. I purchased an old copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and read “As You Like It.” I didn’t really understand all of it, but I was 15 and trying my best. Then I went on to Catcher in the Rye, considered one of the first YA books. I was mesmerized that this could be considered a classic – something with the same compelling characters I’d learned to love in all of that other “junk” I’d read as a kid. Holden Caulfield wasn’t battling an old ghost sent to kill the cheerleading theme, as was the case with many R.L. Stine books, but he was battling real things that I felt, like worrying about my younger sibling as I grew into role-model status and dealing with adolescent angst. I was hooked into how reading could allow me to escape and relate with characters while working through my own issues and it only grew from there.

I’m intrigued by the idea of teaching The Hunger Games. Eric T. MacKnight, an international teacher I follow on Twitter (@ericmacknight), has his students *read books independently and blog their reactions and analyses. One student’s response to The Hunger Games generated an interesting comments discussion. Check out the  student’s blog response to the book and the ensuing discussion in the comments to see what I mean. There are so many avenues one could take, using the books as a jump-off point for projects and discussions. Communist regimes, poverty, class struggles, the increasingly public nature of our private lives, reality TV, even feminism. Katniss Everdeen is, by societal standards, quite a “tomboy.” How does her portrayal differ from female protagonists in other novels? What makes her strong? I appreciated that Collins wrote Katniss in this way because even though I am happy to see kids reading, even if it is Twilight, I can’t help but have a distaste for the boy-crazy damsel in distress portrayed by Bella in Stephanie Myers’s series.

I’m quite the novice when it comes to YA lit, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how these titles can be used as gateways to life-long reading and learning in the classroom and beyond. Thanks to my network on Twitter, I have a great resource of people well-read in YA lit I can turn to for recommendations, but a wonderful resource is the blog YA Lit – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly written by Sara Fuller (@yagoodbadugly). I’ve also been checking out the Goodreads shelves of Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks), author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, which is still high on my to-read list.

If you’re a YA noob like myself, I encourage you to give it a spin and consider how you might work such a title into your curriculum. It’s not much of a stretch. I did a lesson in my methods class tying an Edgar Allen Poe short story to Monster through the concept of unreliable narrators and their effects on readers. It’s easy and you might just snag some of those reluctant readers.

* My apologies to Eric! I thought he taught the book in class, but it turns out one student just read it as an independent reading assignment and blogged her reactions.

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The experience of the long-term substitute

March 4th, 2010 | Filed under: teaching

As someone that completed a licensure program mid-year and came out on the other side to a job market like this, the prospect of finding a contract position was slim. I was lucky enough to have great recommendations and found a challenging and interesting long-term sub position with a gifted program in the city of Norfolk. I’ve been teaching 37 sixth graders in reading, writing, and early American history. I have always loved history, but was thrilled at the opportunity to teach it. And I think therein lies the biggest challenge and greatest reward of being a substitute.

You’re thrown into a classroom where the students know one another and you know none of them. A classroom where another teacher has been running things the way he/she finds best, but which may not mesh with your own ideas. A classroom where the students may have been bouncing around from sub to sub, rarely feeling structure, and most often feeling lost. A vacuum, really, where you are tasked with quickly plugging up the hole before all management and structure are sucked out into oblivion.

It’s hard and lonely at times. You get a crash course, if you’re lucky, from the permanent teacher who, hopefully, had time to prepare some plans for you. More often than not you are left with a pacing guide and a classroom far behind where they should be on that district-mandated time line. I was lucky enough to have the teacher I was subbing for available by phone, text and email whenever I needed her. Not everyone is so lucky.

You’re spending so much time planning that the pile of grades continues to mount, yet you, in your new teacher fervor, have helped students create numerous artifacts and homework assignments, all of which you (surprise!) have to grade. At some point. Soon.

But your biggest resource and shoulder to lean on when you’re feeling out of sorts, I’ve found, is the kids. I have a number of “helpers” that are quick to tell me how Mrs. X did things and where they are in a certain class.

I have a license in secondary English education, so I can teach grades six through 12, but I’ve always felt my talents would be best utilized in a high school. I never expected to teach sixth grade, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so. It confirmed my feelings that high school, particularly ninth grade, is where I would like to be, but I will probably change this as the years go on and my experience as a teacher grows.

So for those of you feeling lost or frustrated with the job market and bouncing around as a substitute, enjoy it. You have the chance to be placed in another teacher’s room and learn your way around it, finding his/her personality and philosophies in everything you see and touch. It’s like having an ethereal cooperating teacher there, but not there.

I was supposed to be in this long-term sub position for six weeks, but I’m cutting it short thanks to being hired with Virginia Beach City Public Schools to teach ninth and eleventh grade English. My sixth graders are sad and my heart aches a little at not seeing their unmatched enthusiasm and energy every morning, but they were so happy for me. They understood that my role was as a temporary teacher, helping them learn until Mrs. X returned. I’m hoping to carry some of that energy with me to the eleventh and ninth grade classrooms I’ll be entering in March, an experience that will bring a whole new set of challenges with it, of which I’m nervous and thrilled to be facing.

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Reading Rainbow and Student Choice

August 30th, 2009 | Filed under: Opinion, personal, teaching


I’d heard rumors that the show was having trouble keeping its funding, but this week PBS finally announced that Reading Rainbow is ending after a 26-year run. Having just turned 25, I spent a lot of time as a kid watching the show’s host Levar Burton on his book-themed adventures, listening to reviews of books from kids my age, and then heading to the library to check out a few. I always thought my kids would have a chance to experience the same excitement about books that I did at a young age through this show.

As this article explains, there’s a lot of debate about whether kids need to be taught how to read first, with phonics and other comprehension strategies, or whether getting them interested in reading should be the first plan of attack.

I believe that generating interest and excitement should be first and foremost our goal as educators. If we get them interest and excited about reading, they are interested in learning, right?

My Facebook feed was a flutter this week with old college friends lamenting the death of Reading Rainbow and they all said the same thing “I like to read because I watched this show.” Sure, they may have seen parents modeling reading in the home, or teachers that encouraged independent reading, but they all felt that this show had a big impact on their reading habits today.

The lyrics of Reading Rainbow come to mind…”I can go anywhere / Take a look / It’s in a book.”

My philosophy of education is ever-changing, but one of the things I always maintain is that I want to cultivate curiosity in my students – a desire to find the answers on their own. I’ve met so many adults that ask questions of friends and coworkers that could (very, very) easily be answered with a quick Google spin. I want my students to know that they can find the answers on their own – that I, as the teacher, am not the font of knowledge in the classroom.

Reading Rainbow did more than just create excitement around reading for children – it taught them that reading is a normal thing, that you can have your own opinions about something no matter your age, and that the more you read the more opportunities you have – that you can “be anything” and “go anywhere.”

The story about the end of the Rainbow hit around the same time as a much-discussed and Tweeted-about New York Times article about giving kids choice in what they read as opposed to assigning class sets of the same novel. The story is part of a great series in the paper on the future of reading.

A reporter follows Ms. McNeill, a teacher in Georgia, as she shifts her classroom from the traditional reading methods of class sets and textbooks to giving students freedom of choice in what they read. McNeill implemented the method after a workshop she attended with Nancie Atwell, author of “In the Middle” and “The Reading Zone.”

What got to me about this article was not the success Ms. McNeill had with the method, which was impressive, but the constant speculation about whether this is the way to go. The reasons behind the speculation? That it may not prepare students adequately for standardized testing and that teachers may have trouble keeping up with all the different books. For me these problems don’t outweigh the potential payoff.

One quote left me hopeful, though, from Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education:

“But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

I’m always frustrated at policies and methods that seem to move kids away from personal freedom, because shouldn’t that be one of our ultimate goals? To give them the skills they need to make big and little decisions on their own?

Hopefully pilot programs like the ones detailed in the Times article will spread with success, because we’ll need something to pick up the slack if the canceling of Reading Rainbow is any true sign of the times.

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