I Am More Than A Statistic

Chad Sansing suggested that this weekend would be a good weekend to #blog4nwp, to tell the stories of the work of the National Writing Project and its 200 plus network sites. Check out the growing archive here.

National Writing Project (NWP) teacher consultants (TC’s) who blog and tweet on a regular basis have always been like rock stars to me. I know their names, their writing style, and what level they teach/work at. I wait for their posts to show up in my RSS feed, much like my computer geek husband waits for his latest package to arrive from Tiger Direct.  Imagine my surprise, then, as I began to rub elbows with the NWP rock stars after becoming a technology liaison for our local site, the Upper Peninsula Writing Project (UPWP). Not only did I get to meet some of my heroes, they also remembered my name from time to time! How cool was that!

One of my biggest struggles since becoming a TC, however, has been admitting that I, too, am a writer. I teach writing, I write, but my words don’t sound as pretty or concise coming from my pen, keyboard, etc. as they do coming from Amy Laitinen’s or Bud Hunt’s. So please excuse me while I stumble through making a case for the National Writing Project. I may be a groupie, but I matter and the National Writing Project matters.

According to data collected by NWP, 97% of participants stay in classrooms and the profession for over 17 years. That is a huge figure! Now, I’ve had a tough time finding valid statistics at the national level for teachers leaving the profession in the 17 years since they have begun, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics 9% of all teachers employed left the profession at the end of the 2007-08 school year. I am not a math person, or a statistician, but I do know that 97% over the course of 17 years is huge! The National Writing Project has about 7,000 active teacher consultants and its programs reach over 120,000 teachers a year. This statistic does not include the teachers that TC’s interact with on a daily basis, or those that they meet in other professional development organizations, not to mention the future teachers they cultivate within their own classroom. Oh, and by the way, new initiatives such as Digital Is has the potential to reach over a million viewers per day! The key to improving our children’s education is improving and lifting up our teachers, and the NWP does an excellent job in its efforts through face to face and digital networking.

I am one of those people mentioned in the statistics.  I am an elementary special education teacher. I have been teaching for 4 years as of January 2011, and in fact, I have had the potential at any moment to be either one of the 97% or one of the 9%.  I joined the National Writing Project by participating in the Upper Peninsula Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute in 2009.  Before that summer, I found myself muttering on a weekly basis that I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to be anything but a teacher- a lawyer, a geographer, an physical therapist. Teaching was too hard, not enough pay and it was frustrating!

After joining the NWP, I found that teaching is still sometimes hard, definitely not enough pay (I make less than $35,000 a year), and at times, frustrating. So what’s the difference?  Now, I have a network of people who are in the same boat who, despite all of these things, are working hard to teach writing in their shop classes, science labs, and kindergarten classrooms! The National Writing Project is teachers teaching teachers. National Writing Project Teacher Consultants view teaching and the teaching of writing as intrinsic to the development of youth and young adults and work to instill this value in their colleagues as well. I would even dare to say that TC’s view writing as a core to the holistic nature of education.  Students need to write. Teachers need to write. Our nation NEEDS the National Writing Project.

Do I still ever think about leaving the profession? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t from time to time, but the NWP keeps me grounded. I know I can count on reading an uplifted article posted by a NWP site leader from somewhere around the country or hear a story told by Heather Hollands, a teacher at our local high school about a success in her classroom, and I am brought back to reality. Thanks to the NWP, I am more than a statistic, and right now, I am striving to be a part of the 97%.  I have 13 more years to go, and worry that without federal funding for the NWP, I will be part of the 9% leaving the profession each year.

Being a part of the National Writing Project and learning from its Teacher Consultants has taught me so much; it would only be fitting if I closed this post with a quote from Bud Hunt, a fellow writing project Teacher Consultant and rock star, “So, yeah, I support the National Writing Project. I believe in teachers teaching teachers to make a difference for students. You?”

From Silence to Whispering

In my second year of teaching, I was already about to throw in the towel. I was a special education teacher in a rural, high poverty school district. I worked hard and felt that it got me no further than Joe the Gym Teacher who sauntered into the building at 7:58 and ran out to his car at 3:33.

About halfway through the school year, I decided to rebel against my district norms. I threw my direct instruction reading manual into the coat closet and pulled out the “Tale of Despereaux” for my 5th graders to read (never mind that they were only at a 2nd-4th grade reading level!). I marched my 7 students into the general education Language Arts class and they began to read and write alongside of their general education peers. I shared my challenges with my professor in graduate school and she started sending me link after link directing me to the National Writing Project. Turns out, she was our site director. I also started talking with a high school teacher who had my older students in her English 9 class and she, too, pushed for me to apply to the Invitational Summer Institute. Thank God I did. In 2009, I was a fellow in the ISI and at our May kick-off, the seed was planted for me to become a co-technology liaison.

The National Writing Project does indeed save good teachers. Now, I am employed in a different school district. I am the only teacher in my alternative education program. I nurture 8 general education middle school students and am slowly cajoling them into giving reading, writing, speaking and listening a second chance. Just when I start to feel like I am stranded on a deserted island, the National Writing Project reminds me that support is just a phone call, e-mail or tweet away. Once a month, we fill our bellies and brains at our local site Saturday sessions. We write, laugh and teach each other. We connect our classrooms through various projects even though our schools may be a half day car ride apart. I don’t know what the future will bring for our rural schools besides the occasional snow day, but I know that our future is a little more bright because we cultivate and plant our Teacher Consultants throughout our region. Here’s to another great year, NWP!

P.S. Donalyn- I hate writing too.  In fact, I did not revise this piece, because I know it would have taken me a few weeks to actually sit down and do it!! 😛

The Power of Patience

When I started teaching three and a half years ago, nothing could have prepared me for the jargon I would face as an educator. The special education terminology was somewhat familiar, but then throw core standards, Michigan Grade Level Content Expectaitions (GLCE), Michigan Curriculum framework, standards-based report cards and now, standards based IEPs! It is enough to make an outsider’s head spin! As a special education teacher, it was pretty easy to take a cue from the general education teachers and make sure that my curriculum was simply aligned with what they were doing in their classrooms. The scope and sequence of courses was laid out and collaboration was made easy.

This year, I have taken on a new endeavor. Teaching in a self-contained classroom for general education students, grades 6-8 has been a bigger challenge than I ever imagined. So, after one marking period, where am I now? A few weeks ago, I started to feel really stressed out. Every time I visited our middle school building that my program is a satellite of, my anxiety grew. Teachers would ask me, “Are you on such and such unit yet? How are you meeting all of the GLCEs?” I would walk out of the building questioning my planning and teaching style.

My anxiety came to a head last week and I decided to revamp my schedule. I would break the students up according to grade level and divide my day into class periods (45-65 minutes each). I would spend approximately 20 minutes per hour with each grade level, teaching a different lesson.After implementing this schedule for two days, I had my official observation by my principal. He came over to my building for an hour and watched my 7th and 8th graders engage in a discussion about a short story that they read. My 6th grader was working on an individual web quest for science. The hour went beautifully; I split my time between the two groups and the principal nodded and smiled as students who barely made a sound last year debated questions and moral values that arose in the story, “Flowers for Algernon”.

After my principal left the building the students fell apart. They had been slowly unraveling since I implemented the new schedule and by the time I left at 1:30 for a conference, I felt like our little community was more like a mere holding room for the students before they went home. What happened to our little family?

A weekend away and some conversations with a few of my mentors revealed the truth: By splitting up my students, I lost the sense of teamwork that I worked so hard to establish. I got caught up in every single GLCE and forgot about the fact that I have been given the challenge of restoring my students’ faith in education. I don’t know why they gave up on school. Perhaps they failed one too many times when taking a risk. Perhaps someone told them that they should stop trying. Either way, I am to provide a second chance for them. My faith in myself was restored when my principal bragged to the assistant principal that he was amazed by a particular student’s participation in the group discussion. “Last year,” he exclaimed, “ ‘P’ would have never even read the story, let alone talk about it.”

I am almost angry about worrying about every single GLCE. Yes, I have to expose my students to the material, but should I really worry about hitting up the grade level material for each and every student? No. I need to take a step back and ask, “What is my relationship with my students and how does it affect their learning?” and “What does mastery look like? What does mastery look like for each individual student?” This is what the art of teaching is truly about. Without relationships, our students do not trust us. Without trust, there is no risk-taking. Without risk-taking, there is not learning. Take a risk. Set aside your teacher’s manuals and form a relationship with your students. Listen to them, care for them, read and write with them. Master the art of teaching and your students will be successful.

Considering Bias…

When I think about the probing question, “What is bias?”, I think, “Bias is everywhere,” but to put my definition of bias into words is somewhat more difficult.  Bias in our teaching, texts, and attitudes is a slant: giving favor to a particular group or set of ideas or treating a group or concept differently because of a difference between social norms and ideals. Recognizing bias and correcting bias in our teaching and presentation of materials is difficult regardless of social class, race, sexual orientation, or other diversity factors.  There will always be some degree of bias in the world, but as educators we should strive to overcome bias and teach students to approach things from a caring, critical and just perspective, no matter what.

In my experience, both as a teacher and a learner, I have encountered teachers who I perceive to be “good” teachers and those who I perceive to be “sub-par” teachers.  After completing the readings and discussions and modules, I have realized the difference between the two types of teachers is this: the teachers that I have perceived to be “good” teachers are those with whom I have formed a close bond.  I have no recollection of “skill and drill” or how well I performed on end of the year assessments.  I remember that I did walk away from the course or grade level with a feeling of self-worth and the notion that, although I am one person, I can make a difference. Noddins (2005) suggests that this is a result of the two-way exchange that occurs in relational caring.  As a result of relational caring, the student feels cared for and responds with actions such as confidence, motivation, or gratitude. Teachers who teach using caring relations are able to monitor and adjust instruction based on individual interests and needs.  In addition, teachers who adopt caring relations with their students are more likely to be mindful of bias in curriculum and in his or her actions as a teacher.  In my opinion, the caring relations framework will help to eliminate bias in pedagogical methods and increase meaningful learning in students.

Considering bias and relational teaching are vital to improving literacy instruction because literacy is the basis for all other areas of the curriculum.  Creating a safe classroom environment that is caring and open to all walks of life encourages students to be risk-takers.  Students need to feel comfortable with who they are, regardless of what preconceived notions may exists outside of the classroom about culture, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and family type. Building trust with students and their families begins by considering bias and adopting relational caring in the classroom.  Parents who trust educators are more likely to support their children’s academic endeavors in and out of the classroom and will be more supportive of teachers, their opinions and their choices when educating children (Noddins 2005).

As I examined my own views and actions, I found that I understand that bias can take many forms; even teaching seemingly wholesome fairy tales can sometimes lead to bias (Christensen, 2003, p. 127)!  I thought that, being a woman, I was striving to teach about women’s rights and equality, but often times, women in fairy tales are seen as a lower caste than men.  I still think that these tales have some literary merit; after all, they are a part of our culture.  Now, however, I will use fairy tales to teach about bias and have my students use them to examine bias.

I knew that my teaching has probably always had a touch of bias involved.  I have never been part of a very diverse community before.  I cannot change my past experiences, but I can change my attitude towards those experiences.  I cannot be afraid of “going there” with my students.  I used to find myself avoiding particular questions because they were too controversial.  I thought that middle school and high school age students couldn’t handle certain topics, but I have learned that how students handle sometime is a direct result of the teacher’s approach.   I need to take risks with my teaching and approach bias and controversial topics with thoughtful planning and plenty of opportunities for interaction and discussion in my classroom.

One specific way I can apply this knowledge in my teaching is to get my students outside of the classroom and experience the world around them.  For the particular group I have this year, this means just simply heading out into our community for service learning projects.  I have been amazed, no, shocked this year by the interactions I have had with one particular student and I am left with my questions.  This student is unable to come up with any original ideas for writing activities we do, whether they are teacher directed or free choice, this student has used movie characters, plots, or video game settings for a variety of exercises we have done.  This would not bother me if he were able to add his own twist to the original ideas, but he cannot.  He is truly, “stuck”. The one time I saw a glimmer of voice and personality in his writing was at one of our stops on a mini-writing marathon. This shows that I need to provide this student with experiences outside of the walls of our classroom and his home in order to get him to streeeeetch his thinking and broaden his experiences. Bringing individuals into the classroom with a variety of experiences may also help expand my own teaching.

Another very simply way to apply relational caring to my teaching is to help students practice mindful speaking. Whenever I am reading aloud or doing think-alouds and it is time for students to share their thoughts, they often offer up careless, silly responses without even processing my question.  By modeling proper “think-time”, I can teach them to engage in casual, yet meaningful conversations that will not be intimidating for students.  Students need to feel that their opinions matter and that it is acceptable to “agree to disagree.” Teaching acceptance allows students to feel comfortable in being themselves and eases worries of being “wrong” or different.

Finally, one thing I started this week, is working towards getting my students to speak positively about school and the things we are doing in the classroom.  I want them to remember the community we have formed and hopefully the struggles they have with their classes will be eased as they support each other as learners. Students are invited at the end of the day during clean-up time to write their “pearl” (good part) of the day on an index card and we tape the cards on the door so they can see them as they enter or leave the room during the day.  Even my most shy students are sharing something with the class, since the card is a little less threatening than going around in a circle and speaking out loud. Usually, after students tape up the card, the students pause on their way out for the day to compliment each other on finding the pearl.

Teachers need to uncover pearls, or the ugly grains of sand, for their students.  Students often join our classes unable to distinguish fact from fiction or opinion.  Sometimes the curriculum and materials that we are given contain bias, but we can still teach effectively if we encourage students to read critically and encourage them to support one another in their learning.  My goal is to continue working towards unbiased teaching in my classroom and helping students to see potential, not only in themselves, but also in one another!

 

Christensen, L. (2003). Unlearning the myths that bind us. In L. Christensen & S. Karp (Eds.), Rethinking school reform: views from the classroom (126-137). Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/noddings_caring_in_education.htm

Thoughts on Critical Teaching

When I first heard the term “critical teaching,” I focused highly on the word critical.  I thought that the term referred to the need to be reflective on one’s teaching and the need to teach students to be critical of the world around them.  While this may play a part in critical teaching, it is so much more than that.  Michell (2006) encourages teachers to “look deeper and beyond” (p. 45).  Critical teaching requires teachers to nurture students so that they can make the world a peaceful, innovative, and socially just place to live. While teaching content is important, teaching students to read between the lines and be digestive mechanisms for information takes precedence due to the fact that many of the careers that our students will enter are in their infancy or have not even been imagined yet.

Critical teaching is important because of the cliché: children are our future.  Children are our future and the need to be taught how to investigate and engage with issues in society.  This need is more prevalent today than ever due to the quickening pace of the transfer of information and the general pace of life.  The role of critical teaching was primarily a parental role several centuries ago, but due to the conglomeration of family types and parental work schedules, Western society is relying more and more on teachers as parents and caregivers.  The skills that students once learned in the family setting are now being delegated to the school setting. Parents who spend less time with their families are also spending less time instilling values and using current events and life experiences as “teachable moments.” Teachers need to recreate experiences and expose students to current events from a variety of sources in order to draw upon them for such teachable moments.

Along the same lines, critical teaching has become more important today due to the shift towards electronic transfer of information.  Reading and communicating has moved from being linearly or hierarchically structured to something that is left in the hands of the person reading or communicating.  Rather than simply finding a book in a card catalog and gathering information from it, users may now search of the subject on the Internet and choose from a variety of sources. Once the reader has arrived at the source page, s/he has more control over the information that is read.  For example, if a reader is researching the functions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) s/he may choose to visit the organization’s home page (http://www.noaa.org). On this page, there are many pages leading to divisions of NOAA and a multitude of links and resources.  The reader may choose to focus on one aspect of this page and miss out on other functions simply because the ability to quickly read and gather information is lost with so many links and categories.  On the other hand, the reader may choose to visit Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com) for a brief summary of NOAA. From this example, it is pretty apparent that the outcomes of the research on the topic may end up being starkly different. Students need to investigate a variety of sources from multiple perspectives in order to synthesize information and form their own ideas about a topic. The goal of critical teaching is to teach students how to be responsible consumers of information; choices affect outcomes and, in turn, may affect the lives of others.

The readings have left me questioning how this might be done in a classroom of younger students (10-14 years old).  It seems that my students are so quick to judge and subsequently verbalize an opinion.  Once they have an opinion about something, they almost need to be “convinced” to think otherwise.  This module has taught me that “show” is much better than “tell”, but I long for a classroom like the ones from our readings where this always comes naturally.  I’m starting to see pockets of this throughout my day, but I long for my classroom to be a place where critical teaching and learning is ever-present. In my opinion, I am in the perfect position to accomplish this and I need to take advantage of the situation. In order to do this, I have formed three goal areas for teaching this year.

First of all, I need to continue to nurture a close-knit, connected community in my classroom.  Already, my students have bonded like a family and are very comfortable with each other.  I need to now set some boundaries, as sometimes it seems that they are too comfortable and are forgetting that the goal is to learn and work together. On the positive side of this, we had a breakthrough week this week.  I was informed that one of my students had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome this summer.  He did not know that his mother told me about it, but happened to write about it during Writer’s Workshop the next day. He came up to me after I finished conferencing with a student and wanted to share his writing with me.  After sharing, we discussed his writing and the feelings he expressed about his new diagnosis.  He talked about how he longed to share it with his classmates.  After much discussion, and subsequent thought on my part, I spent my lunch hour planning an afternoon of sharing and some teaching about Autism Spectrum Disorders.  Scrapping my lesson plans was the best thing I have ever done and the students in my classroom are working harder to support and embrace this student than ever. Our group is showing that they are ready to take more steps in thinking outside of the box and it is my job to facilitate this endeavor.

Secondly, I need to stretch my students.  A majority of my students come from similar socio-economic backgrounds and only associate with similar peers.  In order to have my students begin to think outside of their comfort zone, I need to connect them with the community.  A way that I plan on doing this is to pique their interest by finding organizations that they can connect with and plan service learning projects. Service learning should go beyond simply “volunteering” for an organization and involve other aspects such as planning, interacting, and reflecting on experiences.  Students need to be shown that parties on the giving and receiving end of service benefit and learn from the experience.

Finally, I need to take my students beyond the classroom and local community and transform my teaching to include a view of the world, its people, and its cultures.  This would be a huge step for me, and I think that I need to transform my own thinking about this concept.  I feel that I do not pay attention to what is happening outside of the United States and how it affects our nation and/or immigrants from to our nation.  I need to be more mindful of a global perspective in my personal life in order for it to transfer it to my teaching.

The world is changing and teaching is changing.  Critical teaching is vital to the futures of our students.  Students must learn how to evaluate, investigate, integrate, and synthesize the information that inundates their lives every waking moment.  After students learn this, they are able to recognize what is just and are able to take a stand for what is right.  Our students will someday have students and it is up to teachers to continue the cycle of critical teaching and learning so our students will be empowered to choose right from wrong and have a positive impact on every life they touch.

 

References:

Michell, M. J. (2006). Teaching for critical literacy: an ongoing necessity to look deeper and beyond. English Journal, 96(2). 41-46

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