Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Glorious Impossibility of Teaching English

Twenty-seven years ago, surveying the stack of books I’d been presented with for teaching my first 6th grade English class, the sinking feeling in my stomach hinted at the glory and impossibility of being a secondary English language arts teacher. What could be more significant than teaching communication--reading, writing, listening, speaking--and the thinking processes that link each mode to the next, helps us learn and make sense of what we take in, decide what it means, put our contribution or question into the pool of human understanding, and see what we pull out next? Yet what could be more impossible than teaching spelling, vocabulary, literature, composition, research, speech, and grammar, all in five 49-minute (or shorter) periods per week?

I’ve hit the wall with the same question in my professional reading this week. Everybody has great ideas. And I can’t do them all. It seems that the best I can do is look for patterns. Then decide which is the composite pattern that I can keep up, and pursue better mastery of. 

One master pattern is presented in Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, which I just read this week. The 5 access points are
  1. Purpose and modeling
  2. Close and scaffolded reading instruction
  3. Collaborative conversations
  4. An independent reading staircase
  5. Understanding and assessing performance
Purpose and modeling is where I started my current incarnation of professional development about 9 years ago with the discovery of Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading strategies in secondary classes. Coming full circle this fall as our secondary division will be studying one of them together.

Close and scaffolded reading instruction is what I first started paying attention to 3 years ago when I read Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker. Last year I used it more--I find close reading especially helpful for helping students understand how much can be found in a given passage (and to practice uncovering, inferring, and getting at it), though we don’t take the time to read the entire work that closely.  Next year I can use some of the specific instruction from this chapter on how to mark a page.

Collaborative conversations I also began getting a better handle on 3 years ago in Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, which I read 2 years ago and re-read in a discussion group this past year, highlighted the importance of discussion to vocabulary acquisition, which led me to this summer’s reading of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (see last week’s blog for my key take-aways). 

An independent reading staircase has strong links to the free voluntary reading books I’ve been reading this summer, including, most famously, Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (see earlier blogs “Love Book Love” and “Scary Book Love” for my key take-aways). And, of course, wide and frequent reading also builds knowledge, vocabulary, writing skills, and many other academic and life skills.

Understanding and assessing performance connects to Book Love, to another book I just read this week--Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe--and possibly one I just started--Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson--because I haven’t even touched yet on writing, except in response to reading. 

That strikes me as a pretty good master pattern--except for fitting in writing. Well, I’m in the midst of complexity right now, hoping for simplicity to emerge as I begin actual planning for next year in the next couple of weeks. 

Two interesting thoughts that emerged from different readings this week were about differentiation and about writing.

Differentiation: This has felt like a threatening thundercloud hanging over my head since we had a special professional development workshop on it 2 years ago. But Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design gave a list of “10 teaching patterns that cut across ‘categories’ of students and benefit academic success for many learners” (20). When I read them, I realized that 7 of them I do well, 2 I could do better*, and the 1 that I hardly do at all is the one I can target doing a little more of this year** (pp. 20-22):
  1. Find ways to get to know students more intentionally and regularly.
  2. Incorporate small-group teaching into daily or weekly teaching routines.**
  3. Learn to teach to the high end.
  4. Offer more ways to explore and express learning.*
  5. Regularly use informal assessments to monitor student understanding.
  6. Teach in multiple ways.
  7. Use basic reading strategies throughout the curriculum.
  8. Allow working alone or with peers.
  9. Use clear rubrics that coach for quality.*
  10. Cultivate a taste for diversity
Writing to learn across the curriculum: A publication I read this week gave a list of characteristics of effective (vs. struggling) writers (ERS Focus On: Writing to Learn Across the Curriculum, Educational Research Service, 2005). Of course there are characteristics most directly taught in English class (“Understand and apply fundamental rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling”), but there are several that are just good, fundamental characteristics of effective learners in any class and in life:
  1. Willing to take risks 
  2. Have a well-developed vocabulary
  3. Self-monitor and reflect upon product and processes

At the end of that awful first year of teaching, when I was wondering what in the world I’d gotten myself into, and how I could possibly stick with this impossible career, I attended a 2-week course on using a workshop approach. That gave me new hope. So here I find myself back again: figuring out how to make a little less impossible the glory of teaching English. 


  1. "Yet what could be more impossible than teaching spelling, vocabulary, literature, composition, research, speech, and grammar, all in five 49-minute (or shorter) periods per week?" -- oh my, that was the challenging question I faced each year, and it seemed an unscalable mountain. I always let some balls drop, setting priorities by year's end. We must reassess ourselves each year, and I found that my ideas about teaching and education changed quite a bit as the years went on. I admire you for sticking with it so long!

    1. Thanks, M.K., for your empathy and encouragement! Mostly, I find it more and more fun as I learn a little more each year what is more effective and what is less effective in helping students. I think it's also helpful somehow to be excited about my own learning while I hope students will be excited about theirs. I can't relate at all to teachers who say, "I've got this course down--it's boring--I need a new one."