When I watch 11-year-old Thomas Suarez in his TEDTalk, I am struck by the question: Is he learning because of school, or in spite of it? A tough question, I know. But it’s a question that compels me, and one that begs others:
- Are the questions we ask students authentic and relevant?
- Am I underestimating what they can accomplish when I let go?
- How much content learning could actually collapse when students self-direct?
I may not have answers to these inquiries, but I’m pretty convinced these are some of the right questions to be asking. And I have an inkling we’ll continue getting closer to some truths about teaching and learning when we ask ourselves what we must let go of in order to allow our students to hang onto and construct their own learning.
Enter April’s #TchLive chat! Join us as we think about how teachers can create an “end of the year” with capstone experiences and projects where teachers release responsibility and students learn because of school, not in spite of it.
The #TchLIVE chat will be on April 23rd, at 4pm PST.
For too many years, I used to think my classes would either have good chemistry, or they wouldn’t. Sometimes there was a group of students who just clicked, but more often than not, students don’t know each other when we begin together. And even though my department offers our students many courses to choose from, they are always filling a requirement when they come to one of my English classes. Some bring their natural enthusiasm, others their implicit skepticism, and at least a few always have to be won over. Finally, I decided to get honest with myself, to take a step back and look at why some classes just “had it” and others didn’t. That honest look taught me some careful lessons about class chemistry.
First of all, it wasn’t about chemistry at all; rather it was about culture. And when I realized that difference, I realized why some classes clicked and others didn’t: I was counting on it to just happen, rather than setting out to create it. Over time I learned that culture is something learned, that we have to work at it, that I have to speak it in order to live it. This week we’re highlighting a series of videos that take a look at the lessons I learned.
I’m good at projects, at taking on the next new challenge. I’m energized when I start something new, and tend to give myself entirely to whatever venture is in front of me. In short, I’m either “all in” or “not at all.” Teaching, great teaching, is an act of complete presence. An act of sustaining that complete presence. An act that accrues a special kind of exhaustion. My 5-Day Reboot reminded me that falling into funks may be a normal passage for hectic lives, but a concentrated restart leads to more conscientious living. Reflecting on my own reboot has given me five lessons for staying sound.
Lesson #1: Don’t Forego the Physical
I’m one of those teachers who can’t really plan for the new school year until my room is organized, arranged, in order. I’m one of those people who works through a stressful situation by creating some clean physical space first. For me, the physical makes way for the cognitive. It’s easy to forego the physical, and sleep is always my first victim. Of course, this leads to being less productive and to being less healthy. I’m not proud to admit that I have to actually work at sleeping. Really work at it. Partially because of how I’m wired, partially because the work is never finished, partially because I have a tough time saying no. Regardless of why, I learned that the doorway to de-funk must be constructed of sleep, exercise, and healthy choices.
A few weeks ago, I realized I had been slogging through too many days in a row. Maybe it was the let down of finishing one semester and starting the next one. Perhaps it was the post-holiday sugar detox I was sorely in need of. Or maybe those weeks of sleeping too little and pushing too hard had finally drawn their line in the sand. Whatever the reason, I found myself realizing I had been holding my breath for too long.
Even though I’d just come back from winter break, I still heard myself saying, “I need a vacation!” It wasn’t the kind of exasperated quip I sometimes spew at the end of a long week. No. I was serious. I needed that feeling of taking in clean air, of seeing something beautiful, of breathing deeply. It was clear: I needed to reboot myself right out of this funk. Not one to stay funk-ified for long, I decided to figure out exactly how one restarts when you just can’t stop.
Given all of the constraints staring me down (time, resources, commitments), there was a lot I didn’t have. Conveniently, we teachers are used to those kinds of limitations. So I put on my thinking cap and designed a way to reset my purpose.
Here’s my 5-DAY REBOOT — a little bit of a fresh start to help kick the chaos and restore some balance.
Here’s a confession: Sometimes when I’m at a lovely restaurant, having a lovely meal, with lovely people, I wonder what it would be like to have one of those grand exits you see in movies. You know the kind I’m talking about. Where the underdog has finally had enough, stands up, delivers some parting words to a suddenly hushed restaurant, and then walks out the door: heroic, empowered, liberated.
Sometimes we have to look outside to see inside. I recently shared a series of “teacher images” with a group of educators, confessing that these people had given me as much insight about the craft of teaching as anyone: Mister Rogers, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Julia Child, Jiro the sushi-master, and long-time basketball coach Pat Summitt. In each case, watching this person in the midst of his or her craft has given me entrance into my own. Some may see this as a subversive way of learning, others may call it connection making or transfer, but in the end, I call it inspiration. In fact, that’s where inspiration comes from: the interplay of different ideas, the exchange of disparate subjects, the juxtaposition of mediums. As Rosamond Harding notes in her book, An Anatomy of Inspiration, “originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas” and that inspiration comes not only from knowing our subject deeply, but from “the more [we] know beyond it.”
“There are things known and unknown and in between are the doors.”
– Jim Morrison
I stand on the outside of my classroom door, weighed down by too many bags, as I dig for the keys that have, yet again, found their way to the most unreachable corner of my purse. As I pause, I touch the poems along the entrance, glance at the light bulb covering the wall with the words: Think. Question? Learn! Grabbing the handle, I can’t help but look into the mirrors I’ve covered the door with, reminding everyone who walks through it to “See yourself ______ today!” Yesterday’s word is still there: spirited. As I turn the handle, I recognize the daily ritual of crossing the threshold.
Remember our last Observation Challenge, where we had you Hear, See, and Find the Invisible? Well, we’re continuing this series and inviting you to join our next Observation Challenge. This time, you will look for the instructional moves that help teachers release the responsibility of learning to our students. We’re using a special interactive video player for this Observation Challenge, which should be really fun.
We hope this exercise helps you to hone your observation skills, and helps you translate and adapt what you’re learning on Teaching Channel to your own teaching practice.
More Observation Challenges
Scaffolding for Student Success
What Do You Hear?
What Do You See?
Seeing the Invisible
I’ve been working with the Common Core Standards for several years now, and have noticed a trend in my work: I’ve been engaging in exercises that actually make them bigger. I’ve unpacked, re-worded, aligned, and explained. While each experience was worthy, collectively they’ve left me feeling a little like Sisyphus, at the bottom of another mountain with a big boulder to push.
In addition, I “bundled” the standards (which means that I would rarely teach a standard in isolation), because I know teaching several standards at once supports the naturally overlapping complexities of literacy. This gave me some momentum, but not enough to help put this experience in students’ hands — to give them agency over their own learning — which is my ultimate goal.
So, I set out to see if there was another way. Could I “skinny” the standards and make them truly accessible on a day-to-day basis, for both my students and me? With a big table, copies of the Core, a collection of different highlighters, and an open mind, I began.
What resulted from this process were six buckets (I literally have six buckets hanging in my classroom) that I could use to hold the literacy standards and have them easily accessible so that I could call on them every day. I want to invite you into my classroom to see this strategy in action. If you’re a process-driven learner like me, you’ll want to understand the steps I took to “skinny” the standards. (And check back in about a month! I’ll let you know how this worked with my students.)
Editor’s Note: Find the full 10-Day Back-to-School Countdown here.
In This Vlog with Sarah Brown Wessling:
This is it! I filmed this vlog the night before school started for me, and even after 17 years of teaching, I still have the same feelings: I’m excited, anxious, worried that I haven’t done enough, or that I’ve chosen the wrong direction. There’s a truth here about teaching for me: there’s no amount of work that can make me feel fully prepared for what is inevitably — and gloriously — unpredictable.
It’s just part of the culture of “getting in shape” for the year. I have to have a mental toughness and a tolerance for ambiguity. I know the plan won’t work in the ideal way I’ve designed it (that, I can count on), and I have to think about my own growth mindset as a way to foster that culture of learning.
So before the first day comes, I’d like to keep us thinking:
- Instead of lamenting about never having enough time (which I’m never immune to), how can we reframe how we think about the time we have?
- How do we prepare for the unpredictable?
I wish you all a wonderful first days of teaching!