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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The importance of teaching brainstorming

April 21st, 2012 | Filed under: teaching

Their fingers clawed through the clouds, dripping wet, to find blue.

I’m sitting in an empty classroom as the cleaning lady drags her mop bucket across the floor, waiting for the rain to let up so I can bike home and start my weekend. But, such as things are in The Netherlands (forgive me while I cliche), the rain won’t seem to stop and just seems to pound harder each time I go to pack my bag and leave.

I’ve done a lot of things with my students this week, but one thread seems to follow through all of the classes and cross year and subject boundaries (I teach English and technology). Helping students find an idea or topic that excites them – one that they own – that the teacher didn’t let them choose from a list – one that emerged from the depths of their own interests and ideas that maybe they didn’t even realize they had…that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.

It is much easier to create a list of topics and let your students choose from that list. It feels like you’re giving them choices and like you’re progressive because you aren’t controlling everything like some teachers you know. I understand why teachers do this. It’s easier and, more importantly, it’s faster. Give them the topics so they can get on with the real assignment, right?

Generating ideas in an effort to find that magical one that sparks interest and motivation is pretty time consuming. I know because I often underestimate how long it will take students to find “the one.” I push a little, but not much. I want them to experience that “lost in the middle of the desert” feeling that so many writers or designers or learners experience. I want them to know the false starts and the red herrings that seem like they might be “the one,” but that turn out to be nothing more than empty pursuits. Forgive my cheesy metaphor, but it’s the journey, the being tricked cruelly by the mirages, that makes the real thing that much sweeter. It’s still an uphill battle, no matter the task, but having a topic you enjoy working with makes the climb worth it.

You can’t get that from a list of prescribed topics. You never will.

As a disclaimer, I will say the only time I’ve ever issued a list of topics is in the case of timed writing tasks with my older students. I think it’s important for them to see what they might encounter in higher education and on Diploma Programme exams. I will say their experience with brainstorming and the patience to do so in the face of a ticking clock was a big enough pay off for me to keep spending the time on it in class. It’s important and they understand that enough to sketch out some spider maps or outlines before they start scribbling their pens across the page.

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Student Teaching Week 1

September 13th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching, technology

I couldn’t think of a more exciting title for this post because, to tell you the truth, the first week of classes wasn’t very exciting. Trust me, I had a great time and I’m excited about getting to work with the students, but the first week was full of paper work, book distribution, locker combinations, student information sheets, course expectations, a fire drill, a pep rally and one epic two-hour blackout thanks to a record-breaking rainstorm on the first day of classes. I sat at the front of the class with a flashlight under my chin.

A few lessons I’ve learned so far:

1. I need to perfect strategic bathroom breaks – 90 minutes is a long time.
2. Most teachers don’t eat. I’m trying not to become one of them with healthy breakfasts and lunches each day.
3. Proximity and eye contact work wonders.
4. Err on the side of belaboring the point with students rather than run the risk of leaving some behind. I really need to work on this.
5. Study halls are quite boring on the first week of school.

I had a chance to lead a discussion about the themes of the course with two blocks of students – two very different blocks of students. The first group I worked with started a vibrant discussion among one another – they weren’t just talking to me, they were talking with one another. But the next group, which was the first block of the day, really struggled with explaining, discussing and understanding the themes.

That’s about the only teaching I’ve done, but next week I’ll be easing into more duties and hopefully by week three I’ll be making my own plans. I’m being observed for the first time by my university supervisor and I’m more than a little nervous.

I have all 9th graders for world literature. The high school where I’m teaching houses the school system’s global studies and foreign language academy and all of my students are a part of the academy. I have one class, Journalism I & II, of both academy and non-academy students.

And I had an exciting moment with two of my students – they remembered me from my practicum experience last year when they were 8th graders!

My favorite part of the week so far was standing outside the door welcoming students into the class – using their names when I remembered them. It felt very teacher-y. And we showed Obama’s speech on Tuesday during the journalism course which made for a fitting discussion of the media coverage surrounding the event.

My cooperating teacher and I are interested in developing online writing portfolios for the 9th grade and journalism students, but I’m not sure of the best way to go about it. Wikis? The school system uses Microsoft Sharepoint. Any recommendations would be great!

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