Friday, March 10, 2017
Teaching is ancient and elemental. It is as Gaelic as the night of Samhain and as Celtic as St. Stephen’s Day. It is a very particular art form. It is not a science. No matter what anyone says, one cannot become a teacher by “studying hard.” No amount of reading, writing, or practice lesson-planning, creating units, grading, or designing bulletin boards will make someone a good teacher. They may know a lot about their discipline, but the very nature of teaching hinges on one individual’s ability to transmit that information effectively to another. It relies on what the teacher brings to the collective story. Yes, read widely and diversely – both entertaining and professional texts. Yes study, share your voice, your lessons, your units, your successes and failures. But know all the while that there is a big difference between a teacher who teaches English and a teacher who teaches students. When asked, “what do you teach?” I always try to answer, “freshmen.” And although the way we answer a simple question does not dictate our quality of teaching, our mindset behind our answer does.
It is my assertion that someone who loves their content more than they love their kids can never truly be a great teacher. Maybe a good teacher, but not a great teacher. If our mission is to turn kids on to the discipline we love, we must first show them more esteem than we do our precious books and journals. Too many teachers are still operating under the archaic notion that students should enter our classrooms offering their unwavering respect, ready to absorb every genius sentence that escapes our lips. We prepare our lectures and lessons in a vacuum (or in a group of other adults) and assume we know what is best for the kids sitting in our rooms. We assume the novels we have lined up, the essays and projects we plan to assign, the oral presentations, and the activities will prepare them for the next grade and eventually the world beyond our walls. But how often do we consult students in this process? Does choice exist in our classrooms? Are students leaders? Are we “guides on the side” or “sages on the stage?” Is every class the same: a warm-up, lecture/notes, and an activity… a few days later a review game…and then a quiz or test? And the biggest question: do our classes teach a discipline or a human? Because our classes should be impacting people, not grades. And because of this, incorporating student opinion (not choice within a carefully pre-prescribed structure) and authentic relationship building must be primary foci of our classrooms.
In speaking with a plethora of students of grades spanning sixth through twelfth, I have come up with a simple list of DON’Ts for any English classroom. Now of course, it is most important to sit down and speak openly with your own students to best assess their needs. But to get the conversation started, here are some prevalent “hot topics:”
1. Focus on rote memorization: Students widely admit that when asked to just “memorize” information, they do so long enough to perform well on the assessment and then promptly forget the information to make room for the new. This is why we spend so much time at the beginning of every year virtually re-teaching the grade that came before. If we focused our efforts higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, we can achieve longer lasting results. I do realize that Analysis, Synthesis, and Creation take more class time than Memorizing and Understanding, but I side with the argument: I would rather my students fully understand 75% of the “required material” than have a cursory overview of 100% of the material. Let’s take the time to analyze, synthesize, and create with our students. Doing so will also eliminate the question “why do we ever need to know this?” Because applying literary terms to analyze or synthesize a difficult text will come in handy long before matching literary terms to their definitions. And switch it up, bounce back and forth from those three highest levels of learning so class does not become static. Although students do enjoy routine, because they like knowing what to expect and where they are going, they quickly grow weary of the formula indicated above: warm-up, notes, video, review, assessment, repeat. Let’s get them up and moving, interacting with the material and each other in a manner we best believe will simulate real life situations.
2. Strict management over the things that don’t matter: My kids get up, grab the pass, and go use the bathroom whenever they want. I don’t have rules about when students can and cannot use the bathroom, because that doesn’t matter. Students are allowed to use their phones whenever they want because they have lives and I refuse to be a hypocrite. If I receive a text or e-mail during a faculty meeting, I answer it And you do too. I can do this because I AM focused on what my principal is saying, and because I am, I can also multi-task. There is no magical button bestowed on humans once they reach the age of twenty-one that finally allows for this ability. Kids can, believe it or not, still be paying attention in our class, and answer a quick text from a friend or their parents. So “taking phones” or posting huge signs that say “ELECTRONIC FREE ZONE” are highly counter-productive. Students aren’t allowed to eat or drink in our rooms, so I don’t either. Students notice when teachers break their own rules and it is a rapport-killer. What kind of respect does it show that our own rules don’t apply to us? Manage all behavior in house. Unless a major altercation occurs, I never send students to administration. This signals that I am not in control of my own classroom and need external assistance to keep students under control. Not really the vibe we want to set for teens and tweens.
3. Avoid favoritism at all costs: The amount of students who tell me their teachers are sexist (only like the girls or only like the boys) or have favorites (coaches that favor their players, or athletes in general, directors who favor their actors or fine arts students over others, teachers who favor former students over current, etc.), or who label kids early in the year and hold grudges (whether based on effort, work quality, appearance, older siblings, anything) is astronomical. And even if these perceptions of us are unfair – they are our students’ versions of reality. We need to be very careful to call on all students, to give all students equal amounts of criticism and praise (even the “star students” mess up and even the “slackers” rise to the occasion), and to show genuine interest in each student as an individual. Nothing worse than having a full conversation with the kid who is giving the play-by-play of last night’s sporting event and then shrugging off the student who wants to discuss the latest video-game release. Or visa-versa. When disciplining, do so evenly. Be careful not to label certain students as the “bad kids” and then constantly hound them OR allow your “star students” to break occasionally break rules because “they usually have their act together.” Students pick up on this quickly and it can be toxic to your environment. Never single kids out or reprimand individuals in front of the whole class.
4. Stop giving school work and start giving life work: This applies to all content areas and disciplines, but in regards to English, this could look like: no more grammar quizzes and no more tests on reading. Students should learn grammar in the context of their real writing – situational lessons that apply to the focus of the assignment. Need more writing assignments to do so? Replace the reading tests with essays. Give students interesting prompts that connects their real lives to the reading. Look for essential questions and themes that apply to individual lives and have students explore these issues through their writing (while simultaneously mastering diverse grammar concepts).
5. Treat students appropriate to their age: I know that high school students love being treated like adults. In fact, when I direct my middle school plays, I tell my actors that I plan to treat them like I treat adults too. I create an environment in which they can be themselves, be leaders, develop positive relationships, work hard towards a common goal, and have fun doing so. None of us like the administrator who micro-manages our class. We certainly don’t like the politicians who tell us how to teach. So why do we do it to our students. We assume (like some administrators and politicians assume towards teachers) that students cannot be trusted and if left to their own devices will only disappoint us. I do not patronize kids. I do not talk down to them. I talk to them like they are my peers and I hold them to high expectations. Students know that when they work with me, we will be producing something incredible – whether in class, a nationally awarded musical, a winning paintball team, whatever – and with that reputation, I am able to expect a lot. Talk to any coach, and I guarantee they don’t tell their players “well I can’t hand you that bat because you might hit someone” or “if I give you this ball, will you throw it through a window?” They give them the environment, teach them how to use the equipment, hold them to high expectations, and let them go. And students perform. When they know we believe in them – they believe in themselves and produce at levels not previously thought possible. Don’t treat elementary schoolers like they’re babies, middle schoolers like they are elementary schoolers, or high schoolers like middle schoolers. It is the same philosophy I have in regards to “banning books.” Rather than banning books (or technology), preemptively assuming students won’t be able to handle it, teach them HOW to use and handle it in the most beneficial and productive manner possible.
Teaching is an art form. It is full of finesse – little dramas and fires to put out and every moment of every day. We can significantly cut down on these dramas by holding students to high expectations and treating them as equals. Ensure the classroom is a welcoming and safe space, where ALL students are treated equally and where rules are applied not only to the students but ourselves. Avoid silly rules that have nothing to do with developing relationships and everything to do with establishing dominance and control. Students don’t want to feel dominated – they want to feel appreciated. When designing instruction, make sure students are up and doing – not memorizing, but analyzing, synthesizing, and creating. Link these analyses, syntheses, and creations to real life problems/obstacles for the students to overcome. These are simple steps, spelled out by middle and high school students that can drastically change the classroom environment without completely changing a teacher’s style/pedagogy. Teaching is ancient and elemental and it is our gift (or curse ;-) ) to properly wield this power – not just for the benefit of our students, but for our own enjoyment and increased longevity. Let’s love kids, not content. :-)
If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well. Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come. It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all. We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves. :-)
Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05 http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88 http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99 http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09 http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9 http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6 http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)