Radical Love

love photo
Photo by duncan

My thoughts in this blog post are incomplete, as I am still trying to figure out how to articulate what I am feeling about teaching in our current climate. I finished reading both Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and James Baldwin’s  The Fire Next Time this week. Thinking about the implications for the future of education and for our country (and perhaps even the world) as a whole, I have realized that what we need in this political moment is radical love.

My AP Literature students just finished King Lear. I’m in the midst of reading papers. I actually assign them to write a “rumination paper.” I learned about these types of essays while at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers. It is part literary analysis and part personal narrative—an excellent way for students to connect with the literature they are reading. At least one of my students wrote about her admiration for Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear in Act I, Scene 1, when she tells him she loves him “according to [her] bond, no more, no less” (1.1.102). The student sees Cordelia as speaking truth to power. She knows how her sisters feel about her father, and she is unable to lie as they do. She doesn’t see love as a business transaction. After Cordelia dies, Lear is inconsolable and can barely speak:

No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never. (5.3.369-72)

Lear does not say “I loved her.” But that is what he means. In her essay, my student connected Cordelia’s response to her father’s request to flatter him with her own response to a friend who lashed out against NFL players “disrespecting our flag.” Speaking up has cost my student her friendship, but she had to speak up, just as Cordelia did. Cordelia wavers for a moment, wondering what she will say when her father calls upon her to speak, but when he does, she stands firm, even in the face of his unfair treatment. When he gives her a chance to “mend [her] speech a little,” she refuses to retract her words (1.1.103). However, by the end of the play, Lear realizes he has wronged Cordelia and ask for her forgiveness, which she gives freely. It is an act of radical love for Cordelia to deal honestly with her father. It is an act of radical love for my student to help her friend understand why NFL players are taking a knee.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues that

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. (50)

Later in the text, Freire says, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue” (90). He adds that dialogue cannot exist without humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking (91-92). Freire says that “love is an act of courage, not of fear” and “love is commitment to others” (89).

Baldwin tells his nephew in The Fire Next Time that “To be loved, baby, hard, and at once, and forever” will “strengthen [him] against the loveless world” (7). However, the problem we encounter is that “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believe as we did” (40).

I don’t understand a great deal of the hatred I have seen since the election. We have slipped into loving only those who believe as we do, and we have lost our way. If we are truly to understand one another, we have to engage in dialogue with them. And as Freire says, we cannot have dialogue without empathy and love.

This lack of love leads to oppression, as Freire and Baldwin describe in their books. However, oppression enslaves not just the oppressed but also the oppressor. As Baldwin says, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself” (83). Freire echoes this argument in claiming that in freeing themselves, the oppressed also “can free their oppressors” (56). Hating others is a way of imprisoning one’s self. One of the reasons we are seeing so much hatred and so much lack of understanding is that we as teachers we are still subscribing to what Freire describes as the “banking model” of education in which treat students like “‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (72) rather than asking students to “investigate their thinking” (109) and teaching them to think for themselves and to listen to others, acknowledging that they may think differently, but that we can still engage in dialogue and try to understand each other. It’s perhaps the only way forward in our current moment.

Reading these two books back to back helped me understand why we are where we are—as educators, as citizens, as fellow human beings. Fear dominates our landscape. We are afraid of a group of people—any group you might consider the “other”—moving out of their “place.” As Freire says, “For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.’ For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival” (57-58). We feel threatened by so many things at this moment: immigrants, people of other races, people of other religions, people with other political views, people of other genders, people of other sexual orientations. We find it impossible to enter into dialogue with others because we find it impossible to love them. We are so preoccupied with hating others that we are unable to view them as fellow human beings. I’m convinced that almost all the violence we perpetrate against others, whether physical or mental, is the result of not being able to view others as fully human, like ourselves. When we do not empathize with others, it’s much easier to hurt them. And in dehumanizing others, we dehumanize ourselves.

I wonder sometimes if we are in the last gasp of clinging to our fears and hatred before we embrace others in dialogue. I hope so. I’m not sure I believe it is so. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m afraid that ice might be quite a lot more dangerous than fire. As educators, then, we need to embrace radical love. Baldwin says that “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (95). We need to accept others as they are and meet them where they are. We need to love ourselves as we are. We need to talk with others so that we can understand them. We need to listen to them. We need to be open to each other. We need to love each other.

Now is not a time for teachers to be fainthearted. I know I’m afraid. It’s a difficult time to be an educator. In particular, it’s a difficult time for any educator who is taking risks that our test-driven culture does not cultivate or encourage. However, if we are to teach the next generation how to save the world, we need to be radical. As Freire says,”The pedagogy of the oppressed… is a task for radicals” (39). And we need to practice radical love.

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Learning for Life

My Students

This picture shows three special groups of students. In the frame in the upper left is my last group of advisees at the Weber School before I moved away from Georgia to Massachusetts. They took this picture of themselves at the Winter Formal and framed it for me as a going-away gift. These students graduated two years after I left—Class of 2014. They were such a good group that my colleague Nicki Brite claimed them all for advisory before my last school year had ended. They are sophomores in this picture.

On the bottom are my first group of advisees at Worcester Academy. This crew graduated in 2016, and two of them were my advisees for all four years of high school. I picked up the rest in sophomore, junior, or senior year. They were a lively group. This is their senior picture, and they are wearing their college tee-shirts. My current advisees at Worcester Academy are sophomores this year.

The students on the right are standing in front of Walden Pond. Many of these students were in my class for as many as three years, and I think most of them had my class for at least two years. They are sophomores in this particular picture. At the Weber School, American Literature was a sophomore English class, and most of these students also took my Writing Seminar class as well. We knew each other well. They made this picture because we studied Thoreau in class, and I could not be there with them to experience Walden. They graduated in 2009. I was close to these students. Many of them connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. One of them tweeted this response to my last blog post.

His comment moved me incredibly, but if I’m honest, he didn’t have the teacher I describe in that blog post. I was in a different place when I taught him and his peers, and I learned a lot in the years that followed. Issues of conscience and social justice are much more important to me now. Student agency is far more important to me now. Students have more voice and more choices in my classroom in 2017 than they did in 2007. Yet this student’s comment is evidence of one of my core beliefs. Over time, we will probably forget the mechanics of how to format a paper according to MLA guidelines, what a participle is, or what the red hunting hat symbolizes. What we don’t forget is how our teachers make us feel. If we knew they loved us and we loved them back, we remember their classes fondly. And we certainly remember how they helped us grow in the most crucial ways: becoming critical readers and thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong learners.

As department chairs at Worcester Academy, we recently read an article called “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows” by Erik Palmer in the March 2016 issue of Educational Leadership. You need to be an ASCD member to view the article at the link. What Palmer argues in the article is that what we think about years after we graduate are the things we wish we had been taught. As Palmer reminds us in the article, we are preparing our students for their futures. It’s a moving target. However, we do know that students are going to need to be critical researchers (especially using the internet well), they will need to be media literate and make logical arguments, they will need to be able to speak and listen, and they will need to be good critical thinkers. None of this is new. As Palmer points out in his conclusion, “Argument, rhetoric, and oral communication have been important since ancient Greece” (22).

Thinking about how my approach to teaching has changed, I am curious: What do my students wish they had learned in my class?

Stay tuned. I just asked my students. I’ll let you know what they have to say.

What about you? What do you wish you’d learned in school?

Citation: Palmer, Erik. “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows.” Educational Leadership, vol. 73, no. 6, Mar. 2016, pp. 18-22.

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The Myth of the Digital Native

 student computer photo

I came across this article by Jenny Abamu for Edsurge on Twitter the other day (I apologize for forgetting who tweeted it). It articulates something I have been trying to tell teachers for years in my work as a technology integrator and workshop and conference presenter. Too many adults still assume that students can figure out how to use whatever technology they are given, and while they do generally seem less afraid to try something (especially younger students), they frequently don’t know how to use their devices to do some of the most simple things, such as document formatting. The article captures this knowledge gap well, along with a reminder that the digital divide is still an issue we need to contend with as educators.

Some time ago, I wrote a post regarding my disagreement with a comment I see shared a lot at ISTE (not sure if it still makes the rounds every year or not, but it used to): What’s Wrong with Asking for PD? One thing I didn’t mention in the post is that often when students don’t know how to do something, such as format a Works Cited page or put information in a header, they simply turn it in without bothering to find out. Of course, a long time digital friend left a comment to that effect on the blog post, and further discussion took place in the comments. I do take time to show students these skills, but sometimes learning takes several exposures before it sticks—I know that’s true for me as well, and probably for most people—and students often don’t want to ask twice. I have found the best method is to require students to fix such errors before it’s assessed, or else they will tend not to bother. They will actually accept the points off rather than ask for help. Obviously, this observation doesn’t apply to all students, but it applies to enough of them.

The bottom line is that whether we are working with teachers or students, we shouldn’t make assumptions about what they know and what they don’t. People who don’t know me might be surprised that this gray-haired English teacher knows anything about technology, and the truth is, I didn’t know anything when I started teaching. In my early career, I was definitely in an anti-technology camp.

Abamu’s article includes some really helpful videos you can share with students (or teachers) on a blog or learning management system (or just email links directly). I plan to post the videos in my Resources and Study Skills board on my class pages in our school’s learning management system.

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The First Day of School

I haven’t seen any better advice for how to introduce yourselves to your students than that of Carol Jago:

What do I plan to do on the first day?

My classes all meet for 30 minutes, which allows for teachers to give students course information and expectations, go over supplies needed, etc. I have a handout with all of that. We also have an online learning management system where students can check this information any time. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have read that students form a first impression of their teachers in about four seconds. That’s not even enough time to speak!

Instead of going over all the rules and procedures, I post essential questions for the course in a chalk talk. Each question gets its own sticky poster. I have about four or five questions total. I give students sticky notes. I ask them to think about the questions and respond with their thoughts on the sticky note. They put the sticky note on the poster. Then they move to another poster and do the same with the question on that poster. They don’t have to answer all the questions. After they have posted their answers, they go around and read others’ responses. If they see connections, they draw lines. They can comment on the answers, too.

This activity gets students thinking about what they will learn on day one. It also gets them up and moving around a bit. We follow with a class discussion, and usually it’s time to go. Of course, they get their course expectations handout on the way out, and I post it as homework to read it.

This activity reaps bonus rewards if you pull the posters out at the end of the year so students can reflect on their responses to those questions on the first day.

What do you do the first day?

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How I Decided to be a Teacher

Playing School, William Hahn
Playing School, William Hahn

Teaching was the first career I ever considered, and I actually do remember making that decision. I was in first grade. My experience with education was not that expansive at that point. I couldn’t possibly have had any idea exactly what age group or which subjects I would teach when I grew up. I don’t think I had even considered high school. I’m not sure I even knew the subject of English existed. But I was pretty set on teaching. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, awakened my curiosity about dinosaurs and books. Aside from an incident when she embarrassed me in the midst of scolding me for talking with a neighbor, I remember her fondly and remember wanting to be like her.

I remember putting my stuffed animals and dolls in circles and lines and giving them assignments to complete. I remember reading to my sister. My best friend in elementary school swears that I used to go over the material we were studying in school with her. I wish I could remember that.

I thought briefly about being a lawyer in seventh grade after doing a project in which I played the role of a lawyer, but I think my understanding of what lawyers did was quite narrow. I assumed, based on what I had seen in TV and movies and read in books that all lawyers were trial lawyers, and being a trial lawyer didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t long before I was back to my original plan.

In middle school, I fell in love with French class. I thought I might teach French. I took French in high school, where my teachers were admittedly a lot less inspiring than my middle school teachers (with the exception of one teacher in my upper level French classes). I thought I might one day teach French. I can’t remember if I was told I should also study Spanish, or if I assumed I should, because many of the world language teachers I knew taught both languages, and I just didn’t have any interest in teaching Spanish.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when I decided to teach English. My middle school English teachers were good. I loved reading and writing in their classes, and I have fond memories of projects I did. That changed once I was in high school. I started out in Honors English classes, which were fine, but not all that interesting. I found the ideas shared by the other students intriguing, but I felt they were smarter than me. I understand now that they were just faster and more extroverted. I took regular-level English classes the rest of high school. My tenth grade English teacher was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had. I learned so little in her class, and it was incredibly boring. All I really remember was doing exercises out of Warriner’s grammar books at my desk.

I had a decent first semester eleventh grade teacher, but I remember feeling desperate at that stage that I was missing something. I asked her for a reading list, and she brought me a box of books. I don’t think anyone had ever asked for such a thing from her before. At any rate, I wasn’t in her class long before I moved, and my new English teacher in Georgia was my favorite. The class quickly became my favorite class. I absolutely loved her. I still do, as a matter of fact, because we have remained friends. I was lucky enough to be in her class again senior year, too, though not for first semester. I had a miserable experience in that class with a teacher who did not reward my hard and honest work on a research paper and gave my then boyfriend a good grade on a paper on which he had made up sources and which didn’t meet the assignment requirements. It was so unfair. It still rankles. I am not saying my paper was amazing. It probably wasn’t. But it was the honest work of weeks spent in the library reading Robert Frost’s poems and conducting research.

If not for my second semester junior/senior English teacher, it’s tough to say if I would be teaching English. In some ways, I learned what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be from the other teachers. It is a shame when a kid who loved to read and write as much as I did couldn’t enjoy high school English classes, though. I have tried to do better with my own teaching. I believe I have.

In some ways, I think the fact that I decided to teach long before I decided on who and what to teach contributed to the way I teach. I could easily have taken a different path in terms of subject matter or age group. As a matter of fact, I have taught pre-K and every grade from 6-12. In my role as a tech integrator, I’ve also taught adults. As a result, I don’t have ideas that work of literature X simply must be read at a certain age, but I do believe we should scaffold and build skills in reading and writing.

I was always going to be a teacher, even if I didn’t know the particulars in first grade when decided on that path. There was a period of time about four years into my career when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching. It lasted a few months before I was back in a classroom again. Being a teacher is such a part of my identity that I can’t imagine doing something else.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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My Rock Stars: An Exhibit by Hassan Hajjaj

Students Looking at Hajjij Exhibit

Today I accompanied Worcester Academy students and two of their teachers to the Worcester Arts Museum to see My Rock Stars, an experimental exhibit by Moroccan-born UK artist Hassan Hajjaj. The students are in our Postmodernism and the American Myth and 21st Century Identity: Race and Ethnicity courses offered by our English department.

Exhibit Information

The exhibit is completely immersive—everything from the wallpaper to the seating placed in various places around the exhibit. I have never seen anything quite like it. Photographs of Hajjaj’s subjects hang on the walls. Each photograph has a background with different patterned fabrics, and the colors are bright and beautiful.

Marques Toliver

Part of the exhibit is a video installation in which each of Hajjaj’s subjects perform a music piece while the other subjects appear to watch and enjoy the performances.

Video Exhibit

The exhibit even included an opportunity for students to color designs using ultra-bright colored pencils.

Students Coloring

After students had an opportunity to explore the exhibit, their teachers, Dave Baillie and Cindy Sabik, gathered the group together to talk about what they saw.

Students Discuss Exhibit

National Geographic Proof has a great article about the exhibit. In the article, Dr. Linda Komaroff, Curator and Department Head of the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says, “if music videos existed in 15th century Morocco, this is what it would look like.”

I think my favorite performance in the video was violinist Marques Toliver, who performed his song “Charter Magic.” The video below is not the same performance in the video, but it is the same song.

I also really liked Nigerian musician Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor (who performs as the Venus Bushfires), who plays the Hang, an instrument I had never seen before. Here is the song she plays in the video exhibit (this is not the same video as the one in the exhibit):

I wound up going to this exhibit because Cindy, my friend and colleague, had a conflict and was not going to be able to transport the students to the museum, and not all the students would fit in one vehicle. I was initially going to spend the entire day planning curriculum with ninth grade English and history teachers. Our departments are working toward a collaborative humanities model, and as the English department chair, I’ve been collaborating with the teachers and overseeing the development of the curriculum. I ducked out of our planning session at about 10:00 and returned around 12:30 to find they had made quite a lot of progress. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have such a busy day, but I am glad I didn’t miss the Hajjaj exhibit before it closes on March 6.

I’ve lived in Worcester for almost four years now, but this was my first trip to the Worcester Art Museum, too. We didn’t have a lot of time to look around the museum because we were on a tight schedule, but this exhibit was definitely worth the trip and the minor inconveniences of transporting a group of students. All of the color brightened my day.

Students Enjoying the Hajjaj Exhibit

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #24: Idea Slam!

idea photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

February is a rough month for teaching. It’s cold and bleak outside (in many places, anyway). Everyone seems to be a bit lethargic and tired. Many schools have started having breaks in February. My children’s school system, for instance, has a week-long winter break in February. Dylan was so excited to go back to school Monday that he woke up at 3:00 A. M. I realize he’s different that way, though.

I decided it was time to have a really fun department meeting that (I hoped) everyone would look forward to, so we are having an idea slam. The goal is for each of us to bring one (or more) ideas/tips/tricks/etc. we use in the classroom to share with the others. I think we will not only learn a lot from each other but also have fun.

I’m still trying to decide which ideas I will bring to the group. I have several in mind. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have another idea slam, though, and we have a dedicated shared folder in Google Drive that we will use to share electronic copies of anything we have. I can also scan anything that is only available in hard copy and put it in the folder later.

Some ideas I’m considering sharing*:

  • Literary 3×3. This is an idea I learned about when I was looking online for ideas to teach Mrs. Dalloway.
  • The Cartoon “Did You Read?” Quiz from the Making Curriculum Pop Ning.
  • Literary analysis bookmarks (an idea stolen from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy). (Page 1, Page 2—example is from Song of Solomon, but could be adapted for any book)
  • One of the literary analysis tools from AP Literature training this summer (besides TPCASTT, as my department knows that one pretty well).
  • Thesis statement Mad Libs (another idea from AP Literature training).

If you have a really stellar idea, I invite you to share in the comments. We can make this post our very own idea slam if you all want to play.

*If I know where the idea came from, I attempted to give credit. In many cases, I don’t know where the idea came from, so I have shared where I learned about it at least.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers
Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam
Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading
Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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