Being 53 + 32 weeks: Our classroom is a community of writers

I couldn’t have said it better myself…actually, I wish I’d said it!

Francisco Jimenez, on teaching writing to students who are learning to communicate their ideas in the English language:

Being in the classroom gives me energy. It’s wonderful to be helping young people develop their talents and to see them getting engaged and wrestling with the subject matter. That’s very exciting to me. I strongly believe that I learn from them. They have different experiences that they bring to discussions that profoundly enrich me as a teacher. Students have responded positively to our journey together. I tell them how blessed I feel to be a teacher and to have the privilege of learning from them and helping them to learn.

Part 4 – His words to you: quotes from Francisco Jimenez


Being 53 + 32 weeks: What did I learn from you today?

I’m getting everything ready for my new classroom.  I have 90 students on my roster.  Similar to China, without the help of photos I would have no way of knowing which of my students are male or female.  I won’t know until next week what countries they each come from.

I woke up this morning with the inspiration of a class theme I’m finally happy with – although nervous about whether I can actually let this type of self-directed learning happen.

The theme:  What did I learn from you today?

Sounds simple, right?  It may not be obvious that the pronouns are not what you might be thinking.  The question is, “What did Diane learn from [students] today.”

I realize I need to have a structure for our class time each day, but I really want to challenge students (and myself) with the idea that there is something, some thing that I can learn from them if they will only teach me.

In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of how journalism became his tool for exploring the world around him, and how it gave him permission to learn anything he desired:

“…with journalism I could directly ask people…about anything I might wonder.  So much of my life was defined by not knowing.”

This is how I feel about my classroom.  There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many days in a lifetime.  I could never venture into every corner of the world to learn of such a variety of people, cultures, and languages as I will find in my classroom.  I will never find another environment (short of the library) where I can look within myself to the extent I’m forced to do when in a classroom.  That’s why I love teaching my specialty area so much.  I don’t want to have lived my life “not knowing” and certainly not without at least asking the questions.

Wish me luck! And thanks for reading!

53 + 15 weeks: I Dream of Giving a TedTalk

Author’s note:

I have been dreaming of giving a TedTalk about this topic for over two years but have never put my ideas on paper until this week at the 2016 Prairie Lands National Writer’s Project Summer Institute.

It’s a bit of a rant, although my ultimate goal is to draw educators into action by reframing a common concern as a positive challenge.  And to appeal to their desire to be the very best practitioners they can be in a slightly in-your-face sort of way, but with a smidgen of humor.

This piece is a call to action and a call to change.  I want the reader to feel challenged to the point of increasing their curiosity about becoming better teachers, but not challenged to the point of feeling defeated, defensive, or like a failure.  I do not want to come off as preachy because I’ve learned much of what I write about the hard way, myself.

The most common word I read in the myriad email messages I receive as an education consultant is, “Help!”.

This day is no exception.  I read past the exclamation point to the rest of what’s written.  After clicking “Reply,” I sit…watching the cursor pulse like a yellow caution light at the intersection of “Don’t go there.” and “Now is the time.”  I breathe deep yoga-breaths.

On this particular day I consider a plethora of possible responses, but hesitate to begin typing.  I feel as if I’ve said it all before.  What can I possibly say this time that would be any different?  Teachers in the district’s middle and high schools are reluctant – if not downright averse – to teaching students who are also English language learners (commonly known as ELLs) in their content classrooms.  Sadly, this is a prevailing attitude that exists among more secondary teachers than it does elementary teachers.  I sense frustration, uncertainty, and near-defeat from the writer of the email.  If only I dared to respond with the words I would really love to say.  Deep inhale.  Slow exhale.

And then my fingertips are caught up in the rhythm of making words appear on screen, the chattering of keystrokes underscoring the earnestness in my reply.  I decide that today, is the day.  I begin…This is what I would say to your staff:

Let me be clear, ELL students are not going to singlehandedly ruin your teaching career.   Only you can do that.  On the contrary, I can think of more than a dozen reasons why ELL students will force you to be a better practitioner.  I know this because I owe any success I’ve had in my teaching career to my ELL students.  Here are but a few reasons why you will end up feeling incredibly grateful to your ELLs for pushing you to become the best educator you can be:

  • You will come to realize that if your instruction is clear enough to be understood by a student whose dominant language is something other than English, then there is no question that your lesson will be understood by your English-dominant students, too. All of your students will benefit from your exceptional planning and precise delivery.  Among the staff you will become known as that Rock Star teacher who gets to teach the cool kids from all over the world.
  • You will develop a hunger to see if you can identify precisely where the language barriers are going to be in every lesson before you teach it. As a result, you will become a master at choosing or creating materials and resources that support the content and language objectives of your lessons.  You will staunch any over-reliance on Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers because you will think those sites are for wimps.  And besides, nothing measures up to the cool things you’ve learned to invent out of everyday situations that tie experiential knowledge to your content.
  • You will realize that not all dictionaries are created equal. Likewise, you’ll figure out that cell phones in class are actually a life-line for ELLs (and you), especially when it comes to translating key content words or clarifying instructions.  Before you know it you will be challenging your building principal to please, please, puh-leeeeeze reconsider that no-personal-device policy and its impact on all  students.
  • After reviewing the test scores of all your students, you will acquire additional evidence that validates your intuition about just how little high stakes assessments actually inform anyone about student progress and aptitude. You will develop a love for curating student artifacts and student portfolios so you can substantiate why that test score is an inferior indicator of any student’s potential.  As an added bonus, you will likely become a very vocal advocate for changing archaic testing practices — and not just because you’re bored teaching to the test.  Your new sense of advocacy will arise, in part, from the frustration of being prohibited from giving your student(s) the XYZ test in their dominant language – which ultimately prevents you from giving your students the content grades they are actually capable of earning.
  • You will have no choice but to learn something – anything – about other languages if you really want to understand why a student “insists” on making the same grammar or spelling “mistake” over and over and over again. You will become even more sensitive to these difficulties of code-switching each time you attempt to spell a student’s name phonetically, but fail miserably no matter how much you practice.   Similarly, pronunciation of names keeps you humble toward students and parents who are equally challenged by English pronunciation.  Most important, you will have no choice but to admit to yourself that you’ve been equating a person’s ability to communicate in English with your perception of their intelligence.  First you will be embarrassed, and then you will immediately wish to change. You will remind yourself of this new self-awareness before parent meetings, specifically to keep it in check.  You will notice you are becoming more patient during conversations with everyone you encounter.  This is a good thing.
  • You will think more deeply about your own identity and how much it impacts your teaching, the choices you make in your classroom, what you choose to teach, and why you chose to teach it.
  • You will learn to see the world through an entirely new lens without having to travel beyond your very own United Nations of a classroom. You will learn that when students write stories about how their family hid in the woods to avoid being shot by extremists as they attempted to flee their country, that your students are actually writing personal narratives not creative fiction.  Sometimes you will cry.  An upshot of this awareness is that you will wake up and stop using presumptive journal entry prompts like, “Write about the best vacation you ever had.” and replace them with prompts like, “Tell me about a trip you will always remember.”
  • You will be humbled by the perseverance that ELL students and their families demonstrate toward educational attainment. It will push you to do more than “just teach” because you can’t help but see evidence of this determination to succeed every day.  It will seem unthinkable to you that students and parents believe this success comes from you not them.  (See numbers 1 and 5.)
  • You will challenge yourself with the mission to eliminate any wasted time in class because you will have a deep understanding of the urgency behind the phrase, “Make every minute count.” You don’t have to be a math teacher to figure out the problem: Second language acquisition research says it takes five to seven years to attain grade-level academic English proficiency, but your student enters a U.S. school in tenth grade meaning he has only two years to increase his fluency quickly enough to pass all of the courses he’s going to need in order to graduate on time. (Yes, that’s a run-on sentence because you are running out of time.) He needs X number of high school credits to graduate in the allotted two years.  What are the odds expressed as a percentage that your student will graduate if you’re not teaching with intention every moment? This is why teaching with a sense of urgency becomes your mantra.  If you don’t figure out how to up your practice with additional supports for him (see numbers 3 and 4), he will drop-out or age-out of the building.  Trick question:  Who’s the real loser in this situation? Answer:  It’s not the student.

Teaching even one ELL student will force you to be a better practitioner.  I guarantee it.  It will change what you think you know about teaching and learning.  Self-reflection will become your most reliable “quality indicator” inside and outside of your classroom.

Now, are you ready?

Professional excellence and personal quest

A fundamental question I have is, How can I integrate a quest for professional excellence with a quest for self-knowledge?

I’m aware that without a consistent approach to self-reflection, I’m prone to overlooking nuances of my interactions with students that are as highly relevant to their academic success as the strategies I use to guide their understanding. My experience is that many educators and the public at large perceive the creation of a homogenous, standards-based, quantitative system of evaluating students’ academic competency as being synonymous with teaching that is equitable and non-biased. I disagree.

I have realized that a failure to fully examine my biases (such as those related to social and cultural norms, and definitions of what constitutes a good life after education) may result in classroom experiences that deny my students from developing a “healthy ethnic identity and self-concept” (Tyrone C. Howard). Therefore, I posit that teaching that is predicated on technical excellence is unlikely to be equitable much less non-biased.

This is a personal and painful realization for several reasons:

  • I am the progeny of interracial parents,
  • I have long imagined myself “blind” to what anthropologist Edward T. Hall referred to as “the cultural iceberg” aspects of identity,
  • My teaching career developed almost entirely in the area of teaching English to speakers of other languages (which naturally has lent itself to teaching students who are quite different from myself and each other).

At the outset of my career in education I was asked to write a highly professional yet deeply personal philosophy of teaching. I approached the task with the best intentions of avoiding forced assimilation of the English language and American culture on my students, and with every intention of fostering a highly experiential and inquiry based learning environment. More than eight years into my career I realize that no matter how carefully I crafted those guidelines I wrote them as a pre-service teacher without benefit of the self-inquiry I undoubtedly needed to conduct before putting pen to paper.

This leads me to ask myself, am I a “good” teacher? I’ve won awards and have been selected for educator opportunities that many other teachers haven’t been offered. But those details don’t interest me as an indicator of my suitability as much as the questions I’m currently raising and the answers I’m seeking about myself as a human who is also a teacher. Steven Emmanuel suggests, “…good teachers employ techniques and methods that preserve the essential openness of the learning space, while giving it a vital focus. They resist the temptation to close that space in the interest of achieving some predetermined learning outcome. The temptation to close that space can be quite strong though. As it is often viewed by fear, uncertainty, and risk that uncertainty entails. Technique can very easily become the sort of thing we hide behind. Or it may become a subtle form of control that eliminates the element of risk even as it purports to be done for the sake of the students. –(Steven Emmanuel, The Mindful Teacher,) (emphasis added)

I propose that this “subtle form of control” goes beyond my desire to avoid risk in order to save face, and extends to questions that arose following an eight-day educator’s retreat last summer based on Krishnamurti’s “Education and the Significance of Life.” Since the retreat I have been wondering if I am overly reliant on “good” technique, and if this is a form of oppression because it insists on mastery of a model outcome that I can evaluate equitably by a well-crafted rubric? How much of my good (i.e. professional) technique is bad for students because it robs them of their own ways of knowing?

When educators are trained to gauge their effectiveness on student performance data, ultimately that links successful teaching to a rubric of properly planned and properly executed learning strategies that are imposed on students. In the current state of teacher evaluation, the responsibility of asking why I teach and how I teach becomes dangerously obsolete in the professional landscape. I say dangerously because when I fail to observe and analyze my teacher-self, I realize this lack of self-knowledge creates and preserves dangerous systemic oppressions that extend beyond a student’s classroom experience and follows students into the various roles they will assume in society (be it career, higher education, theology, family, philosophy, art).

Racism, prejudice, oppression, and the violence that thrives on a highly competitive framework permeates U.S. society despite a multitude of religious teachings and civil rights legislation that purport to thwart these behaviors. Meanwhile, with very few exceptions, everyone in the U.S. passes through the portal of elementary and secondary education. Consequently what happens in classrooms potentially impacts the life of every member of society. Yet we don’t ask of our teachers that they practice self-reflection as a means to breaking these cycles. Instead, teachers learn that professional excellence is equated with technical excellence that can be measured competitively by student outcomes.   How thoroughly do I need to understand my self and my teacher-self if I ever hope – however briefly – “to see who it is that is acting?” (Thomas Merton)

While my inquiry is based largely on personal experience and observations, I would hope that the outcome of my efforts would lend itself to being of value to other educators. More importantly, my experiences of self-reflection often enable me to interact more openly with my students and other educators. And ultimately, every personal interaction is where I can choose to risk being open to what that moment has to teach me.

Thanks for reading!


What is good teaching?

I’m not the quickest learner in the room, but I’m often one of the most persistent. It’s been five months since the summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, which means it’s also December and that the close of the 2015 Fall semester has arrived.

Several times this semester I found myself feeling off-balance while teaching. It happened while teaching students and when facilitating professional development workshops for teachers. I can only think that – in a positive way – my experience at Ojai shook the confidence I felt in my teaching practice.  Until now I haven’t been able to name what lay at the root of this feeling.  But today, while listening several times over to Dr. Steven Emmanuel’s recorded presentation, “The Mindful Teacher”,  one of the questions he posed suddenly made me realize what I had most certainly failed to grasp at the summer retreat in Ojia.

Dr. Emmanuel’s question:  “What does my use of this particular [teaching] technique reveal about how I relate to students?” (emphasis added)

Although “The Mindful Teacher” is absolutely worth listening to in its entirety, in the segment from 11:40 to 14:50 specifically, Dr. Emmanuel poses several questions that helped me realize how “…technique can very easily become the sort of thing we hide behind. Or it may become a subtle form of control that minimizes and eliminates the element of risk, even as it purports to be done for the sake of the students.” The “risk” he’s alluding to is not the risk that a student will miss the point, but an avoidance of risk by the teacher to allay fears that he or she will lose control of the learning environment if there isn’t stringent adherence to a strategy or technique in a specific lesson plan.

This far removed from the summer retreat in Ojia, I’m now certain these were the very points Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy was trying to guide me to as well.  Sadly, last summer it was such a certainty in the quality and intention of my teaching technique that certainly blocked my ability to see the relevance of this point.

As I’ve tried to integrate ideas from the retreat into my teaching practice (especially with regard to facilitating professional development) another one of  Dr. Emmanuel’s points seems especially relevant, “Mindful teachers use mindfulness to preserve the essential openness of the learning environment while giving it a vital focus.”  It would seem rather obvious that a workshop or lesson needs a focus, and recently I’ve become far more interested in creating workshops around questions rather than objectives.  This seems to help me maintain my intention to “preserve the essential openness” of the learning environment.  However, I’m also aware that I’m still unskillful enough that I fall into doing more of a “think aloud” while walking folks through my inquiry into those questions.  A fall-back position on strategy and technique?  Hopefully at least a step in the right direction of risk for me, and toward openness for my students and participants.

I don’t think either Dr. Krishnamurthy or Dr. Emmanuel is insinuating that teaching tools or teacher training are unimportant or unnecessary, but rather they raise a valid concern that “mastery” of teaching technique has come to mean how a teacher uses teaching strategies, tools, and methods so that students reach predetermined outcomes/answers/conclusions.

Consequently when the description of “good” teachers focuses solely on what techniques the teacher chooses that are most effective at quantifying how many students produced a “correct” response, there is little opportunity (much less incentive or invitation) for a teacher to engage in reflection and self-discovery beyond whether a particular strategy was the right one to lead students to a correct answer.  At a much deeper level Dr. Emmanuel asks us to consider what our choice of teaching technique says about our presence in the classroom, and even perhaps our perspective of teaching and learning as a whole.

Equally important, when administrator’s don’t value the time needed for teacher’s to engage in reflection and self-discovery as a valid part of a “good” teaching practice, it seems unlikely that teacher’s will engage students in self-reflection and self-inquiry.

I haven’t decided how to balance the qualitative with the quantitative in my teaching practice, so it would seem winter break will find me considering these ideas more deeply.

Thanks for reading!