As the 2015-2016 school year drew to a close, I found myself considering professional development quite frequently. It came to mind as I discussed the possibility of my district adopting Chromebooks as teacher devices, and I considered my colleagues that would need significant professional development to be successful with that level of technology. I considered it as my PLC chose to move forward with adopting a new textbook series that is bountiful with resources but could lead to unnecessary stress and frustration without proper training. I considered it, a lot, as I sat through a district-funded workshop that was packaged as being something new and revolutionary but had very little to offer aside from a somewhat unimpressive, self-published book.
There are very few moments I can point to as moments when the professional development I experienced was truly effective and beneficial to my growth as a teacher, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the same idea echoed from teachers across the state.
And this, I feel, is one of the biggest flaws in Education. There are times when teachers are treated as if they are clueless, being forced to sit through yet another afternoon of Professional Development hearing about what exactly formative assessment is, and there are other times when we are expected to be magicians and mind readers simultaneously.
Research in best practice has proven that students don’t learn from being told to do something. As educators, we would never say to a student, “A fraction is a numerical quantity that is not a whole number, now multiply them.” We would model for them and show them exactly what it was they were expected to do. Yet, that is how teachers are expected to learn about their profession. Explaining the philosophy behind a technology-rich educational environment help teachers understand how to implement technology into their classroom, or teach them to be comfortable with it themselves; hearing the definition of formative assessment does not show me how to implement formative assessments effectively.
Just as we assume that students are not performing to expectation because they do not understand the material, it is time the world starts assuming the same of teachers and using best practice to help us meet expectations.
In order for teachers to truly improve, we need explicit instruction, we need modeling, we need to observe experts implementing the practice that we are trying to learn. In a perfect world, teacher professional development would involve differentiation, and closely working with a peer or an instructional coach or an administrator who could model best practice in the targeted area before guiding the teacher through implementing it themselves.
But how do we differentiate professional development for teachers while still honoring their skills as a professional? What would that process look like? Would administrators need to observe said teacher and identify a weak area for them to work on? Would this only happen during “on cycle” years when the teacher is up for review? Or would individual teachers be responsible for reflecting on their practice and identifying an area of weakness to focus on improving? What would happen when teachers that were known to struggle with a certain essential aspect, such as formative assessment, didn’t choose that as their area of focus?
Beyond differentiation, how would the limited number of instructional coaches manage to work, theoretically, with every teacher in the building? How would educators find time to co-teach or work in others classrooms to see models of the practice they are trying to improve?
While the logistics of a more focused and personalized professional development are hard to fathom, a third year of meetings about formative assessment indicates that the lecture-style professional development isn’t working to truly help teachers improve their craft; In a world where fingers are constantly being pointed at the flaws in our Education system, it seems imperative that we invest in us, the teachers, who have the ability to change that narrative.
It may not seem significant in the grand scheme of like... the entire world at large, but as far as the ELA classroom goes the "To teach a whole class novel or to not teach a whole class novel" debate is one that rages on endlessly.
Even during my Milestones in English Education course, I saw evidence of early stirrings of this debate long before schools had things like literacy libraries and group sets of novels.
Everyone that teaches English/Language Arts has an opinion on this topic, and it's a topic that tends to stir up intense emotions. Within my own district, I have experienced the effects of mandates to have leveled reading groups, diatribes about how whole class novels are ineffective, and impassioned arguments made about why whole class novels are a teaching method that individuals will never abandon.
And while I can't disagree that giving students choice is a strategy that increases engagement and student ownership over learning, my experience has taught me one thing about teaching novels in the classroom, and it is this:
If the teacher isn't passionate about the book or books, the kids aren't going to be engaged.
For the last three years, I have taught the novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson in my classroom in one way or another. My first year, I gave it to a small group of kids that were advanced readers because of the historical aspects that would be challenging to them. It was during the creation of the lessons to go along with this that I fell in love with the book. My second year, I had an advanced class of sorts, and the students were divided into two groups, with one group reading Fever 1793, and another group reading a different novel due to a number of the students already having read the book in their 5th grade classrooms. In my other two classes, we read the novel whole class. This year, I read the novel whole class in all three of my classes.
I love the book. I love teaching it. I love talking with my students about Nathaniel Benson and Matilda when we first discover they like each other. I love learning with them about Yellow Fever. I love discussing with them the difference in scientific knowledge in regards to hygiene and medical treatments. I love working through the figurative language with them. I love taking them through the wild ride of a city plagued with such a devastating disease.
And guess what? They love it too.
Boys that read nothing but Rick Riordan, or nothing but football books all year love it. Kids that will only read dystopian novels love it. Girls that are in remedial reading classes and require small group lessons and a more advanced reader to help them work through it love it.
It's a book they would never pick up on their own, and a book they will never read again. But it's a book they get caught up in and fascinated by.
I would never argue that the only way novels should ever be taught is whole class. There is a time for ability grouping, and a time for book clubs based on interest.
But I do know that working through a novel whole class allows students to hear a proficient reader on a regular basis. It builds community through a shared experience. It allows for more specified individual instruction that does not exhaust the teacher while they try to keep up with the plot of 5 different novels. It opens students' worlds to books they would never have chosen.
And there is absolutely nothing better than saying "we're going to stop there for the day" and getting a chorus of "nooooo"s in response.
Should I abandon this book or stick it out? Why do some people abandon books while others refuse? How do I coach my students through reading grit and endurance and helping them to understand that it's okay to not like a book you read when I regularly abandon books I'm not enjoying?
These are questions I've been struggling with for quite some time, but tonight I think I stumbled upon some beginning of an answer and I'm wondering if it makes sense to anyone but me.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to work with the company behind a new platform for engaging and interactive online reading for students. The platform (and company) is Actively Learn and you should totally check it out. One of the blog posts I'm writing for them is about reading strategies in the real world, so I was thinking about what reading strategies I actually use as a reader outside of the classroom. This lead into thinking about teaching reading strategies in my classroom, which lead to thinking about how I want to start the school year, which reminded me that I wanted to have a more heavy emphasis on setting a purpose for reading this year.
At the beginning of the last school year, I spent time talking with students about why we read to set a purpose for the entire school year but for some reason (#newbieteacherproblems) that didn't translate into having students think about their purpose for reading something for the rest of the school year.
And somewhere in this line of thinking it hit me: Whether or not we choose to abandon books depends entirely on what our purpose is for reading them.
A friend, who is actively pursuing her life as a writer, reads books primarily for the purpose of making herself aware of the kinds of books that are already out there, and to study writing craft. As a result, she rarely (never?) abandons books. You can learn just as much about writing craft from terrible books as you can from phenomenal books.
I, a 6th grade Language Arts teacher, pursue most reading outside of school for the purpose of enjoyment. If I'm not liking a book or if I think it's badly written, I quit reading it.
This lead me to consider the numerous texts I was required to read for classes and how my purpose for those was entirely different. I may not have enjoyed the literature review in Chapter 2 but my purpose was to be prepared for class and to investigate why the professor wanted me to read it.
Does our purpose for reading entirely drive our willingness or unwillingness to stop reading? Or is this some nonsensical thought train I've stumbled upon?
In the grad school class I'm currently taking, we read an article about the metaphors applied to teaching as a profession and the harm it does to both teachers and the world of Education as a whole. The primary focus of the article was "teacher as saint" and all of the implications of that, including the idea that teachers do their job out of love and therefore do not need to be monetarily compensated, and that there is no actual expertise required.
However, a slightly less explored topic in the article was the idea of "teacher as mother". This metaphor follows the same vein as "teacher as saint" due to the cultural expectations of sacrifice in motherhood. It even went so far as to quote Virginia Woolf's "Killing the Angel in the House" about the societal expectations that place pressures on women to be certain kinds of mothers. In response, a fellow classmate brought up the idea of calling her students her "kids" and whether or not this behavior was a result of the pervasive metaphor.
It has given me some things to think about.
Why do I refer to my students as "my kids". They are certainly not my children. I did not give birth to them and do not wish at this time in my life to have any children of my own. The closest I get to wanting children is truly enjoying parenting stories, especially those that involve children doing completely asinine things. So why am I claiming 85-some children as my own?
Even my colleagues who have multiple children refer to students as their kids, or as "my Lily" or "our Brianna". It's a somewhat strange phenomena if you really think about it. These children have, most of them, parents at home that are loving them. We do not need to claim them. We are not adopting them.
And the only thing I can come up with is that it's a term that is claiming responsibility and showing affection. By calling them "my kids", I am committing to them for the year that they are with me, or perhaps longer. I am committing to riding their emotional waves, celebrating their personal triumphs, and doing everything I know how to do to encourage their growth. I am investing in them.
I especially find this true with students who I continue to be invested in after they have left my class. Kaitlyn, who goes by Katie to nearly everyone else but who has always been Kaitlyn to me out of affection, will always in my mind be "my kid". I still consider myself responsible for her, invested in her, and devoted to helping her navigate her life.
So, while I don't agree with the sacrificial and demeaning implications of the metaphors for teaching that are pervasive in our society, the side-effect, I suppose, of referring to students as "my kids" is one I don't mind at all. I'll definitely continue using the term, as the commitment to the students is one of the most important aspects of teaching and it's one passion I refuse to surrender.