“Whatever you do, don’t move into the district.” After graduation, a professor bestowed that advice unto me, not referring to my future district in particular. Instead, his recommendation was aimed at ensuring my personal and professional lives remained separate. What he couldn’t have told me was, as a teacher, the distinction is nearly impossible.
Heeding his advice I quickly drew a map of prospective towns to live in—all bordering the large EHS district. What I failed to realize was no geographic distance or astute apartment placement could distinguish between teacher-me and outside-school-me. In five years, between college and graduate school, I have moved to five different towns. Living in an apartment naturally feels temporary, yet when I moved here that changed. I find myself waving to my freshmen as they bag groceries at Market Basket, chatting with them as they serve me at my favorite restaurants, and standing in line behind them as they too go to the movies on Friday nights.
In turn, I too felt the devastation when EHS suffered the loss of Officer Stephen Arkell, an EHS coach and the father of two current EHS students. Officer Arkell was killed in the line of duty in Brentwood, a town within our district. EHS is not a stranger to tragedy, yet within my two years here, it has been the second time I have seen this school and community join together to support one another. While I did not know Officer Arkell, I have felt his loss through the parents, teachers, and students of this community. Returning to normalcy when nothing feels normal is difficult, especially for teenagers, many of whom are witnessing death and tragedy for the first time. My heart bleeds for his daughters, the eldest of which I knew, as well as my colleagues and the countless students I have and had who are pained over the loss of Officer Arkell. I drive through Brentwood everyday on my way to and from work; I see the signs thanking Officer Arkell for his service, and I am reminded of how many of my students must have watched the black plume of smoke from the fire at the crime scene hang over their town. I see the empty seats in my classroom of those students who knew Officer Arkell as a family friend or coach.
As I stood at the candlelight vigil last week, I recognized faces of students, parents, and colleagues. The reality is that district lines don’t define communities. When I became a teacher, I joined more than a school. I proudly became part of a population that has the strength to face tragedy with exceptional support and compassion. I followed my professor’s advice: I didn’t move into the district. But he failed to warn me that the district would find a place to settle down within me.
I am a middle-aged English teacher, and I read more nonfiction than fiction.
I didn’t think I would succumb to this affliction. I used to read stories exclusively, sagas of other realms and times I could never inhabit. I immersed in the beings of characters, and just as Holden Caufield so famously fantasizes, I wanted to call up F. Scott Fitzgerald and hang out. I tried to have lunch with Russell Banks, writing him from my college dorm room when he still lived in Concord, but Affliction was being made into a movie so he likely had better offers.
Twenty years later, I have begun administering self-treatment. I let my New Yorker subscription run out because I would read John Seabrook’s 10,000 word feature, “Crunch: Building a Better Apple” (don’t judge me, it’s fascinating) but skip the short story in the back. So I signed up for Glimmer Train and The Paris Review instead, and gorged on short stories and poetry, and it worked for a while, but the last four books I’ve read? The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Cold Blood, Devil in the White City, and Wired for War. Making matters worse, I no longer teach literature survey courses as in my first decade of teaching. I squeeze in a handful of novels in some composition classes, and the occasional elective offers fresh titles, but I am primarily a pusher of nonfiction these days and I’m finding it an easy sell. Much of our reading for composition, while dense, is short, current, and renowned, and once the students learn to unpack an essay’s meaning and craft, they clearly feel empowered. The content is more than real for my students, it is urgent; a wailing rally cry around the issues in education, or war, gender, race… Admittedly, I enjoy facilitating their introduction to nonfiction, but am I prematurely rushing them into middle age? Should I teach novels in what is supposed to be a course in rhetoric and nonfiction?
I understand the common reasons readers, say 40 and beyond, often migrate to nonfiction; we increasingly read onscreen, we read to inform our occupation, our economic standing, or our political affiliation. While women have carved out spaces for book clubs featuring novels, men have not matched their efforts. Calling all men in our department: Can we have a novel club? I hear some monthly organizations can cure you of poor habits. For our ground-breaking, ice-breaking novel, I want to laugh aloud, no chuckle or smirk will do, or that chiefly adult laugh whereby a rush of air passes through our teeth in ironic reproach, but the kind of hoot during which I might pee a little bit.
I think some good can come from this struggle. If anything, I am starting to realize the idiom, all writing is argument, can have practical applications to my teaching. As nonfiction can display remarkable attention to figurative implications and boundless imagination, fiction can serve as an informative and critical text. I am not speaking of the ancillary resources we attach to our fiction units: interviews, reviews, critical analysis in a foreword or author’s note, all of which are effective and enriching. More specifically, I am referring to using the novel itself as an argument. My colleague, Mr. Provost, asks his students to evaluate Nick Carraway’s claims about the protagonist: “Gatsby turned out alright in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” While not all novels have this brand of lofty exposition, a grand opening much like a prologue, all of the authors and characters we love in our canon works make bold claims that are either warranted in the body or not:
- “If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don’t watch it, you start showing off. And then you’re not as good any more.” -Holden Caufield
- “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.” -William Golding
- “The one thing that doesn’t abide by a majority rule is a person’s conscience.” -Atticus Finch
- “There’s special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” -Hamlet
Front-loading these claims in teaching a novel could be a way for fiction purists to serve a new master, RTI, while saving at least one former literature teacher from abandoning the stories he once loved. Looking through my own favorites, I am only beginning to learn how we can teach fiction as an informational text or an essay. We can empower students with the language and pose questions: Where do you find Holden Caufield’s reasoning non sequitur? Does he oversimplify? Generalize? Does he resort to attacking a person, not the issue, ad hominem? Our students can synthesize these answers in “extent to which” prompts like those coming from RTI, or any other phrasing allowing them to qualify their stance on claims.
I offer these examples humbly as an alternative approach to teaching a novel if our fiction titles are threatened by standardized testing or by our increasing tendency toward information over imagination as we age. We can assess students in reading dense, informative fiction beyond their bounds. I didn’t finish Animal Farm in Mrs. Corrigan’s 9th Grade English and ponder its allegorical representation of the Russian Revolution as a model for economic reform. I thought, “Those pigs are mean.” And Mrs. Corrigan, bless her heart, let me write about those mean pigs. I wasn’t ready to deconstruct a novel as an argument, but I’ll bet a lot of our 9th graders are ready if we care to try.
In August of 1963, Madeleine L’Engle won the Newbury Medal for A Wrinkle in Time, the first book I ever finished, then immediately started reading again. In her acceptance speech, she laments an establishment attacking the wonder of a child who reads stories. She writes, “These are the forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us all, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” I find her quote reassuring, and terrifying. It tells me this struggle between imagination and information, between choice and standard, is old, that this too shall pass, while paradoxically arguing that perhaps it never passed, that history doesn’t repeat itself because there is no need to look back at struggles all around us now and forever.
I share L’Engle’s quote because my son Jackson and I are currently reading A Wrinkle in Time before bed. So it seems all is not lost for me. I still indulge in a chapter’s worth of tales concerning Percy Jackson, Narnia, or a galaxy far, far away. In L’Engle’s novel, Jackson loves Charles Wallace, the five-year-old sage who dispels terrific one-liners and inexplicable foresight. In one of the opening scenes, Charles knows his mother and older sister will have a fitful night, so he is already downstairs making sandwiches and warming milk. He stirs the milk on the stove and cuts the liverwurst sandwiches with a large butcher’s knife, all the while in footy pajamas. I read in my teacher’s voice at night, Mr. Hale, a voice Jackson finds funny but rarely interrupts. However, at the image of a boy creeping downstairs to utilize fire and a blade in his pajamas, Jackson laughs.
“He’s got to be standing in a chair dad, that he dragged around the kitchen, still holding his knife. Can’t you just seem him?”
And mercifully, I can. I can see him still.
“Ms. Catcher, do you have Inferno?”
“Inferno?” I asked. I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut. His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.
“Yeah, you know that book about hell.” I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.
“Um, yeah, let me find it. Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again. I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.
“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced. The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.
Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest. I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read. Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive! I read this in college.” I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.
“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.
Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation. And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book. But he didn’t.
“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments. She made a good point. Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on his state standardized tests over the past two years. Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.
Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle. Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling. Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.” Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader. As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book. You can keep reading.” Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.
Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student
I’m an intern this year. A clueless grad student cast away from the university I just started to call home into the not-so-real world of unpaid labor. In those first few weeks of student teaching, all I felt was this overwhelming terror. My stomach would somersault as I stood near the edges of the classroom, watching my cooperating teacher work her magic. I felt my identity crisis setting in. How could I teach like all of those who have inspired me in the past, or even the teacher before me, with half a dozen years of experience tucked in her pocket? Those teachers were my opposite: older, wiser, weathered from all that the teaching profession throws at you. So what kind of teacher would I be?
I’ll get back to you when I have an answer.
I do, however, have an idea of who I am, who I will be as a teacher. I am passionate and excited, like only an intern can be. I am loud, for I can’t be anything else. I am trying. More than anything else, I am trying. And I’m enjoying every single day.
This is the beauty of my internship. I have been granted the time and space to figure out exactly who I want to be when I grow up. My cooperating teacher has welcomed me to invade her classroom and claim a bit of it as my own. For this I am grateful. How else was I supposed to learn to teach, or deal with the blank stares of students, or work with my worst fear- parents? A lot of my success as an intern stems from her. She is a resource to me that I use daily. It’s not that she has any answers, but together, we discuss those big teaching questions that seem to fade away as the years go on. From her I’ve learned that collaboration is a big aspect of identity in the classroom. I get ideas, notice things I wouldn’t have seen alone, and hear about all the great things she’s done over her years of experience.
I also firmly believe in the phrase “fake it till you make it.” I fake confidence a lot of days, and I pretend like everything is on the lesson plan, but as anyone who stands before a wolf pack of high school students knows, confidence and perfect planning are not always in great supply. A large part of who I am is based on my students; they are the only mirror I have when teaching, so sometimes a little faking goes a long way when it comes to their comfort, and therefore my comfort in the classroom.
My internship is a gift both for me and from me. Every day when I plug in the string lights behind my desk I start forming who I am as a teacher. I start wrangling the eccentricities that help, keep shedding the nerves that don’t. I’m getting there, so that one day in the not-so-far future, when students stare at me for the answers and there’s no one else to turn to, I’ll be able to teach them with confidence. By then, maybe I’ll have a better idea of who I am. But for right now, I’m happy just trying to figure it out.
When I first became a teacher I distinctly remember being told that what my kids read doesn’t really matter as long as they are thinking “critically” and using “higher-order” thinking skills. And I thought to myself okay, I can do that. And I did. I taught novel after novel. I created (or borrowed or begged and sometime stole) worksheets, tests and projects that I felt taught “critical thinking skills.” But something was off.
That first year was a blur. I never felt ready for the next day’s lesson. I never felt like I was on top of the various initiatives and expectations. I never felt caught up on grading. In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve ever felt “caught up” on grading.
That year I was focused on one thing: surviving.
Year two was less of a blur, but still a struggle. In fact, each year brings with it new struggles: classes are different, students are different, initiatives are different. We are in danger of burning out each year. It’s the best and worst part of teaching: that each year is a new start.
When I think back on it, I’m a bit surprised that I survived my first few years of teaching. According to the National Center for Education Statistics every year U.S. schools hire more than 200,000 new teachers. By the time the school year is over, at least 22,000 have quit. 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession after three years, and more than 45 percent leave after five.
Why? Why do a little less than half of us leave after we’ve spent 5 years in the profession?
Surprisingly, our notoriously low salary isn’t the reason; nor are our students. In fact, less than 20% of teachers who leave say it’s because of low pay. The most cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession are lack of support from administration and feeling powerless in curriculum and instruction decisions. It makes sense. Burnout begins when one feels powerless about curriculum decisions, what to do with department time, standardized testing constraints, or even how to teach. For many teachers, years of feeling powerless can sap their motivation, and they quit.
So, how can we get fight back against burnout? For me it all comes down to two things: collaboration and choice.
Collaboration: In my opinion, most teachers don’t get enough time to collaborate. We have to find it out on our own. Teachers need time: to collaborate and commiserate, to talk about our teaching, to learn about new techniques, approaches or tools. For me, it happens in hallway chats, during lunch and over summer break. I can’t control the time we are given, but I can make sure to use the few chances we are given to my advantage because I know I am a better teacher when given the chance to collaborate.
Choice: No, I cannot always choose to teach whatever I want (let’s be honest, if I could, my classes would all be reading Stephen King), but I can choose how I approach each new educational reform or school focus. We burnout because the rotating cast of initiatives and the “language of education” are always changing. But we have a choice. We can choose to collaborate, approach our lessons creatively, attend professional development and keep an open mind.
When all is said and done, teaching and learning revolves around one fact: true education only happens with intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn because we are passionate about the subject. If we are not self-motivated to become better educators, we simply cannot expect the same of our students.
We can choose to change. We can choose to collaborate. We can choose to find new ways to reignite our passion for teaching. Passion leads to skill, which leads to mastery.
And passion is what protects us against burnout.
It is the time of year for the New England teacher when our moods and those of our students coincide with the natural contrasts of light and dark, and warm and cold. We wake to darkness and provide our own light to prepare for the day. Likewise, we dress to accommodate for the storms that rage within and without. The physical mirrors the psychological.
As caring teachers we have to be doubly prepared to face the elements of the season – students and co-workers in need of a helping hand, the demands of our families, and the pressures unique to our own circumstances. Near the holidays, the light we carry and the warmth we provide may be all that separates someone among us from tears or anger. We will feel some degree of seasonal stress, either our own or that of someone else. Yes, we will keep our students challenged, and yes, we will continue to race the clock with our various projects and responsibilities. But there is one more critical thing than Common Core, common assessments, competency writing, rubrics, and all other tasks at hand, and that is our collective responsibility to look out for the emotional well being of our students and each other.
Too often as teachers we underestimate the power of a touch, a kind word, or the smallest act of caring – all of which have the power to turn a life around. Unleash a tidal wave of courage this season and be the light in your classroom and school. Draw smiles on faces with your eyes until you don’t have to anymore. Believe that through caring, compassion, and commitment you can make a difference that will last long beyond your lifespan.
That is truly extraordinary.
When I pick up my 2-year-old Colette from daycare, she usually asks what I “taught the kids today.” For my own amusement I always tell her exactly what we did: “We read some Ralph Waldo Emerson and Daddy asked the kids what they thought about it; We discussed the nature of ‘coming-of-age’ as defined in an essay by Pico Iyer; We explored the cyberpunk sub-genre of Science Fiction in both print and film.” I just like to hear what she says, how she processes, what she picks up. And one day she picked up on something that reminded me of a recurring conversation I used to have as a first year teacher. When I told her, “We wrote about Walden by Henry David Thoreau and shared our responses,” she replied, “No, Daddy. What did you teach?”
My first teaching job was in Brooklyn, NY. The mentor I was assigned was plucked right out of central casting: thick Brooklyn accent; coffee and cigarette stained teeth; equally at home on a street corner as he was in the teacher’s lounge where our weekly meetings took place. His first question was always the same: “Whaddja teach dees kids taday?” If I replied then as I do now with Colette, his response was hers exactly, only with somewhat more bite: “Nah, kid. I mean, whaddja teach dem?”
With Colette, I turned it back on her and asked what she thought I should teach the kids. She looked around the car and out the window, and then recited everything she saw. If my curriculum reflected her response, my students would be learning about apples, houses, her little brother Cooper, trees, and trucks. My mentor in Brooklyn would have loved this response. “Eggsactly kid! It don’t madda what you teach dem, I mean content-wise. I’m askin’ ya what skills ya taught dem. What can dose kids do taday a little bedda den dey could do yessaday? You teach students, kid, not content.” He used to spit the word content out like it had soured or gone stale, while I would scramble to think of the actual skill or ability that was at the heart of my lesson.
So here I am thinking about all this again: a parent talking to the sponge in the car seat behind me, a teacher reflecting on my practice as the language of education becomes Common Core. And I think there’s something in Colette’s advice about how to decide what to teach. What is in the car with you is what is most important to you, and what passes by the car window driving through town are the concerns of the community. That is to say, in terms of content, consider whatever is within reach, or maybe just out of reach, and teach students the skills to actually grasp it for themselves.
~ Dan P.
Click. The door shuts behind me and I stand in the corner of my new classroom. Bare, whitewashed walls, band-aid colored desks, and a stretch of empty wooden bookshelves frame the space. I let ownership wash over me and settle in the pit of my stomach in a knot of nervous energy, potential, and excitement. There is no feeling like that of being in a new space—my space—for the first time. The bareness and sterility sink in when I realize that not only do I have to resuscitate my incoming classes of freshmen, juniors, and seniors, but I also must breathe life into this classroom. After all, reviving this empty shell is the first step to creating a strong learning environment for my students, one in which they feel ownership over their learning process.
In elementary school, teachers spend entire summers developing themed rooms that make learning magical. In first grade I remember reading in an old claw foot bathtub filled with vibrant throw pillows, yet as I matured so did my classrooms until the vibrancy of elementary school gave way to the starkness of high school. In the upper grades, it was assumed that English, math, science, and social studies didn’t need to be coated in glitter to excite students—the complexity of the subjects could carry themselves.
As I approached my classroom this summer, I designed it around my students. My goal was to create a space that not only excited students about reading and writing but also served as a flexible area to differentiate instruction based on the individual needs of my classes. Each detail was tailored to develop an ideal learning environment.
My first step was in picking a color scheme. English is oftentimes seen as a “female subject” as compared to math or science. In turn, I picked a gender-neutral color scheme with red and blue as my main palette. Was I overthinking it? Potentially, but studies have shown that the color red is linked to high performance on detail-oriented tasks while blue is linked to higher performance on creative tasks. Color coordinating for efficiency certainly couldn’t hurt—and as a first year teacher, I’ll take all the help I can get.
In my classes I use a workshop model to guide my reading and writing curriculum. In turn, students share their work with one another to create a strong collaborative environment. This method requires a flexible classroom that can easily transition to the needs of individual students as well as into working groups. I focused on developing individual spaces from a reading corner to a one-on-one conference table at the back of the room and grouped desks for collaborative work.
Finally, the centerpiece of my classroom is a bulletin board that stretches the length of one wall. Divided into separate sections, this interactive board not only displays student work, it also encourages reading and writing by putting students’ achievements on display. In the center of the wall a knobby paper tree with four large branches (one for each freshman class) stands tall decorated with paper leaves. Each leaf represents one book a student has completed. Not only does this simple display mark communal class achievement, it also serves as friendly competition between classes. To the left of the tree is a large, three-dimensional writer’s notebook. Page protectors allow me to easily slip in and highlight examples of work from my students’ writer’s notebooks. Finally, to the far right is a graffiti wall where students can post model sentences from their books as well as their own writing.
Everything has a place and function in my classroom. From grouped desks to my young adult library, I aim to create a place for teenagers to find common ground with each other through reading and writing. My creation is not perfect and it will continue to grow as my career does, yet for right now, this space has brought my students together, allowing me to spark my own magic.
I often ask students to create a visual representation of an idea we have been tracking in class. Imagine, I might say, you could take a snapshot of Huck and Jim at three different stages in the novel as a way of illustrating the nature of their relationship. The skill that I want to assess with an assignment like this is the ability to identify defining moments in a novel—moments where something changed, developed, manifested, etc. I am assessing how closely a student has read, but since identifying and discussing defining moments in a text is a focus of many of our classroom conversations, I am also assessing how closely a student has paid attention. If you are paying attention in the novel, you notice when things change; if you are paying attention in class, you recognize the types of changes. But here is what inevitably happens: the students who take good notes and are artistically gifted get A’s.
The problem with this scenario is that I don’t teach students how to take notes, at least not explicitly, and I certainly don’t provide instruction in the visual arts. In other words, I am assessing skills that I don’t teach. I have never developed and presented a lesson on how to represent something visually, I just take it for granted that kids can make posters—as if they are ready to step right out of my classroom and into the art department at a Madison Avenue ad agency.
While this discordance between instruction and assessment is pretty obvious on the “poster projects,” it is more subtly, and more significantly, an issue at stake when it comes to assessing student writing. Assessing student writing can be a little like listening to the radio: we know right away what we like or don’t like, but it can be hard to define that quantitatively. So much of what is on the radio is formulaic and boring, yet familiar and catchy enough to entice the listener to nod along without paying too close attention. Clever students figure this out as quickly as pop-rock bands, and what they produce is equally as inoffensive and shallow. Nice hook, no glaring missteps, predictable transitions, wrapped-up neatly in 300-500 words (or 3-5 minutes for the radio).
It’s easy to reward clever students for doing things well that they can pretty much do on their own. But that isn’t teaching. I remind myself of this when I encounter a student frustrated by a given assignment. What I like to tell that student is that this is supposed to be hard—if it you could do it on your own I wouldn’t bother teaching it. Last year I challenged myself not to assess a given skill until I had demonstrated it myself. This slowed things down, but in all the right ways. It also forced me to reconsider the skills I valued most—since I would have to demonstrate them, I didn’t want to end up giving myself a bunch of busy work.
The skills that emerged as the most valuable transcended the specific text and center around the idea of “joining the conversation.” I stressed that there are conversations going on all around us, conversations about heavy issues like race and gender, and less heavy (but no less contentious) issues like sports and music, and we join these conversations responsibly when we exhibit an awareness of occasion, the speakers involved, their audience and purposes, and the crucial tension of the issue at stake. Authors and artists and musicians and talk radio hosts join these conversations through their respective mediums. Each medium has its own form-governed rules. What is boring and predictable adds nothing to the conversation. The challenge for this year is to teach teenagers how not to be boring and predictable. It’s the same lesson I expect them to teach me.
I love TED talks.
I often find myself consumed by the wonders of TED. Technology. Entertainment. Design. In fact, before sitting down to write this blog, I logged onto TED and watched an hour’s worth of videos. TED truly is a teacher’s paradise. I mean, when you think about it – isn’t that what we do? We teach with technology, we entertain for engagement and we design our own lessons / units / projects. Teachers are, in a sense, artists.
Do we all see ourselves that way?
I certainly didn’t. In fact, when I first began teaching I simply intended to keep my head above water. I never really thought about why I was teaching a certain novel, poem, theme or literary term. I did it because others in my department did and since they had been teaching for a lot longer than me, I figured I should.
Do me a favor here and type the word “intention” into the search bar on TED.com. One of the first talks to pop up is John Hockenberry’s talk “We are all designers.” Here, Hockenberry gives a very enlightening talk on how one’s intentions matter. About 16 minutes into the talk, Hockenberry states “An object imbued with intent — it has power, it’s treasure, we’re drawn to it. An object devoid of intent — it’s random, it’s imitative, it repels us. It’s like a piece of junk mail to be thrown away. This is what we must demand of our lives, of our objects, of our things, of our circumstances: living with intent.”
I’d like to steal Hockenberry’s idea here and say this: intent is an essential component for teaching. It’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to teach with intent. Teaching is a craft. Teachers design lessons / units / assignments. We determine what we want our students to know and we begin to craft a road map to that outcome. If our road map starts to falter, we change things up. We reteach, we redesign, we review, we rewrite and many of us do this unconsciously. Like artists. Because teaching is an art form.
I have different intentions each year. My first year of teaching, I intended to survive. My second and third year, I wanted my students to pass the “test.” And then a funny thing happened. I took a step back and I realized teaching is not about the content. It’s about the kids. My intentions in becoming a teacher were never to make all kids realize what a powerful novel To Kill a Mockingbird is. I now realize my intention is to make my kids understand how powerful their own voices are, perhaps with Harper Lee’s help.
My takeaway from Hockenberry’s talk is twofold: first, it goes without saying that it’s really difficult to stay focused on craft with everything else going on in the test-crazed world of education. And while many of us don’t have a choice in what we teach, we can decide how we teach it. Second, fear is a roadblock we all have to overcome to get to the root of our intentions. Teachers are a fearful bunch and many of us lack intention because of fear. We’re afraid of the Common Core, parents, large classes, bad classes, administrators, observations, and afraid of someone showing us that there could be a different way to teach. I’ll be the first to admit that I was (still am) afraid of many of these things. And when I get fearful I remember what Kim Stafford said in his book Muses Among Us: “teaching is an art. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
We are artists. Our student are our audience. Our content is the colors we use to craft our masterpiece.
What will your masterpiece be?