Friday, January 30, 2009

How Much Should English Teachers Read?

Recently, someone thinking about becoming an English teacher asked me, “Do English teachers need to read constantly?”

Quickly, I thought, “Gosh, no. English teachers just need to want to read constantly!” But the more I thought about it, the more I focused on words like “need” and “constantly.” Then I wondered, read what? Fiction? Historical documents? Convoluted student prose? Poetry? Professional journals? Do English teachers “need” to do the kind of reading that made them love the subject in the first place? How much do I nurture my love of reading as it competes for time with the reading I do grading, preparing lessons, and keeping up with the profession?

I also read newspapers to keep up my citizenry, and I read aloud to my kid. I flip through a variety of cooking magazines. However, my love of fiction and poetry, the reading that led me to teaching English as opposed to chemistry, doesn’t get much dedicated time. Honestly, when I sit down with some serious new fiction, I often fall asleep. Unlike in my college years, when I found poetry cathartic, I now find the emotional potency a bit overwhelming. I read some light fiction for fun, but I’m running dangerously close to becoming one of those English teachers who thinks 1984 is cutting edge contemporary fiction.

So what’s my answer? “Do English teachers need to read constantly?” Well, I think good English teachers probably do read pretty constantly. It just doesn’t happen to be the kind of recreational reading that we loved before we taught full time. This sincere question, from someone reflecting on whether or not she should pursue the profession, has reminded me that making time to read new, contemporary voices in literature is part of my professional responsibility. I think I need to prioritize reading new fiction like I prioritize other parts of my job instead of leaving it on the nightstand to usher me into sleep. Keeping up with new voices in literature will only enhance my ability to teach tomorrow’s students, right?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Making the Most of Humble Pie

Since the new semester began three weeks ago, I have:

  • Distributed essay directions with due dates listed from a past semester
  • Created a “Calendar of Major Due Dates” with two entries that included the correct numeral but the wrong day, like: Thursday, January 23, 2009
  • Graded an assignment for three class sections and forgot to record one person’s late submission sent to me via email
  • Created an interactive “clicker” grammar activity with a “red/read” typo

Of course, I’ve made dozens of other mistakes, too, like mispronouncing new students’ names or bringing the wrong edition of a textbook to class—ordinary, simple human errors. I make them all the time just like everyone does, and while I sometimes annoy myself, I don’t think too much about it.

The errors listed above, however, happened in a written record of one kind or another, and each of them came to my attention only when a student pointed it out to me in class. These mistakes created an opportunity for me to eat humble pie in front of my students.

When I was a newer teacher, I used to choke on humble pie. My hold on my classroom management felt tenuous, and being called out on an error (especially a writing error) upset me; I would become flustered and start babbling out excuses, or I might try to sharply direct attention elsewhere. I guess I felt vulnerable anyway, and when students pointed out my mistakes in class, I thought I heard heckling. Now? Now, I usually laugh and thank the student, along with a comment like, “I’m glad someone around here is paying attention!”

The fact that I’m still thinking about these incidences belies any claim I might make that I don’t care about humble pie anymore. It still can be embarrassing, but it no longer makes me defensive. When I can laugh at myself, students seem to relax, too. I teach writing, and I try to encourage my students to take risks in their text. I can handle them witnessing my lack of perfection, too. Teaching as a profession can be so long—thirty years for full retirement, right? It can be redundant—editing a calendar of assignments semester after semester. I wish during those first years of teaching I had been better able to laugh at myself, to shove a forkful of humble pie in my mouth and ride out the moment with my students. Making mistakes does not diminish a teacher’s power, but being unable to handle making mistakes just might…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, January 16, 2009

Resisting Lip Service

I don’t like lip service. If I endorse something verbally, I try to follow through on it personally. It’s a process, to be sure, but as I stumble through this life, I try to be authentic (even when I’m authentically wrong!). We start a new semester every January, and I get new classes of students. Some students are new to me and some students I’ve had before. I believe that each student deserves a clean slate on the first day of class. I do. Truly. However, when my class roster greets me with the names of students who failed my class in December, I sometimes struggle to follow through on my clean slate ideology.

Giving a clean slate in January seems more difficult than giving a clean slate in August. In August when I see a familiar name on my roster, I think, “Well, maybe so-and-so’s done some growing up over the summer.” But in three weeks? How much personal growth and maturity can happen in three weeks? It just takes more prayer and meditation to conjure up that attitude in January.

This week, a young student whose name brought a quick flashback of frustrating moments to mind I’ve taught before came half an hour late to the first class, greeting me with a big grin. I smiled, gave the student the assignment the class sat working on, and kept teaching. During a quiet moment a few minutes later, the student walked up to me and said, “You’re going to kill me. I don’t have any paper.” I smiled with rue and recollection and handed over paper.

Ideologically, I don’t want to be the teacher who laughs and shakes her head and says snottily, “Of course you don’t have paper.” I didn’t do that. Yet. It’s difficult to write about this because I’d love to say that all my years of experience have made me immune to this kind of human pettiness. This student creates a teaching challenge because the ability to learn sits intact and beautiful within this young mind, awaiting the arrival of the willingness to learn. If some other teacher had this student this January, I would say, “That student is a good kid who deserves a fresh start.” Why is it so difficult to provide that fresh start myself? Being late and forgetting paper are small infractions when the slate is clean, but it didn’t feel that way when it happened with this familiar student… Where can I flush my build-up of frustration and disappointment with this student, so we can both begin again?

To follow through on really giving a fresh start to students even when I know better, I have to stick to some good habits. I need to get enough sleep. In my opinion, snotty teaching is fueled by fatigue. I need to eat well. I need to schedule in family and leisure time, because when I feel like “I have no life,” I get frustrated more easily in my classroom. I need to continue my policy of non-engagement when teachers complain about students together. Do I ever complain about students? Sure! Obviously, I’ll even write about it extensively and post it on the Internet, but I try to refer to students without names or identifying characteristics. My colleagues and I often teach the same students, and I don’t want to taint either the teacher’s or the student’s future experiences. If someone wants to complain about a student by name, I walk away or change the subject. It fosters an ugly kind of teaching fungus I don’t want to breathe.

When the tired, discouraged, and jaded voice about a student rants from within my own head, however, I struggle. I do. I am. I poured a lot of energy and hope into this kid last time. Even though I know grades are students’ responsibility, I feel rejected by this person because my class did not star in the student’s universe, and I’m still licking those wounds. (Whenever I have an ugly teaching feeling, it almost always roots itself in narcissism. Ugh.) I need to put the sign back in my center drawer that says, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, KATE!” and look at the student with fresh eyes. It’s a new day, right? The student could have paper tomorrow, right?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, January 9, 2009

Using Resources as a Way of Life

Recently, I’ve been trained in a curriculum review process that uses a rubric to assess content as part of a cooperative peer learning opportunity. Everything about the process is fairly standard, but as I worked my way through the rubric, one point caught my attention. It asked if the course content ensured students understood the services provided by the school itself that could assist students in reaching their educational goals. Hmm. Do my courses do that for my own students?

In the past, I’ve taught classes where the guidance department came in and did a short orientation of its services, and I’ve had entry-level classes I’ve taken on a tour of the library facility. However, in the majority of the courses I currently teach, those orientations and tours occurred over a year ago. One of the things I enjoy about teaching is the small bubble I build with my students for an hour or so each class period; lots of the resources my students need, I provide or direct them to within the walls we share. As I reflected upon this rubric question, I realized I don’t teach my students to access the resources that surround them in our school community by themselves. What if they think they might need to be tested for a learning issue? What if they really need a part time job to keep coming to school? What if they have a problem with someone on the bus that just won’t go away? What if they want to research something privately, without my help? As maturing adults, shouldn’t they know how to access these resources independently?

I find this omission of mine especially ironic because during the research essay process, I teach about finding and evaluating useful resources. (Ahem.) Would it be so difficult to point out that not all resources come via the library database? That some of the resources students might need could be found right where we stand?

Since my years as a Pollyanna are behind me, I know part of why I don’t routinely send my students to other parts of my institution. Dead ends, busy lines, or miscommunication between school professionals and my students have led to tales of woe as well as me ditching lesson plans reliant upon survey questions for Career Services or the Testing Center. How can I emphasize school resources to my students without sending vacant foot traffic that creates busywork for my peers? What’s a meaningful way to fulfill that rubric question?

It’s something I’m thinking about as I prepare lessons this semester. My first idea goes to the Web. I think I might ask students to brainstorm some student issues that impede educational goals as part of a “Let’s get off to a great start!” initiative. After we record the issues on the board, we could try to identify what parts of our school could help with each of those problems. I’ll assign one of the issues to each student and send students to the school website to see if they can find the answer or a contact person for the problem they’ve been assigned. This process would be a micro-version of a research process. I also like the idea of modeling research and activation of resources as a way of life. I’ll be interested to see if this process seems meaningful…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher