Saturday, September 2, 2017

Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

Yes, that's the ocean you see in the background. Reading at the beach is better in the spring and fall than in the summer when you live in Okinawa, Japan.

As a high school student I recoiled in horror from the career suggestion of being a teacher—why in the world would I want to go over the same information year after year with students who were frequently indifferent? 

Little did I imagine that effective teaching calls for mastery of so much more than the discipline content—which, by the way, includes understandings and skills as well as information. The other two legs of the triangle are understanding of the students and understanding of pedagogy. 

Even the discipline content changes from year to year—in English, there are that many more books published, any one of which may be the one that will transform a reluctant reader into an avid reader, or open new worlds to a reader, or be the next future classic! (And who has read even all of the current classics? After 30 years of teaching English, I’m still working on the list of 100 books someone thinks every college freshman should have read!) 

The students, of course, change every year—their personalities, experiences, interests, skills, and readiness levels. And in pedagogy, there are constantly advances in brain science as well as social and educational theories, studies, and practices to help us even better connect those constantly changing students we care about with the discipline content, understandings, and skills we care about.

With all those changes, I read (see some of my summer reading here, here, and here) and make plans to incorporate them—unit plans, lesson plans—and sometimes I even learn things in the process of teaching and change those plans on the fly.

Here are some learnings I experienced this week:
  • A new book: I finally got my hands on the award winning graphic novel trilogy March that recounts the Civil Rights movement through the life of Congressman John Lewis. I’m half-way through the final volume and have already book-talked the first one.
  • An old book: I’m also reading East of Eden. Why did I never realize that John Steinbeck can be absolutely hysterical, in a very understated way? The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men...I've read them, but just always thought he wrote with depressing insight into human nature. But this: "Her head was small and round and it held small round convictions" (!!!). Maybe it’s not just the students who are growing in their ability to read like a writer.
  • My students and their writing: Tenth graders are writing a personal narrative about a time they learned a lesson or had an epiphany. We’ve already read two professional models: “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan (in our literature anthology) and “When a Southern Town Broke a Heart” by Jacqueline Woodson (in the New York Times last summer). As we are working through drafts, I’m learning about my students’ lives as well as their writing strengths and next steps.
  • An essential question revision: “What words in what arrangement are most likely to create the desired effect in the audience?” I was just reading aloud from the AP Language textbook, but when a student blurted, “That is a really good question!” I knew it must be better than the one I’d been going with: “Why does style matter?” There is such a thing as being too concise. (Btw, if you're looking for a new AP Language textbook, this one is great. My students even say so, unsolicited, to their parents, at back-to-school night, last night. Full disclosure: I get nothing for saying this.) 

What did you learn this week—about your discipline content, your students, or your pedagogy?

And always keep a sense of humor: This is my "editing day" t-shirt--worn yesterday for the first time this year.