Thursday, July 17, 2014

Steal Like a Teacher to Teach Like One [Inspired by "Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon]

A cruise around the internet and in many print publications wields a cascade of resources for teachers, all of which promise that using them will result in classroom success. Lately, I've been pondering a question:

What does it mean to teach like a teacher? 

This question entered my mind as I read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (2012 Workman Publishing) and thought about its implications for teaching and learning. 

The book begins 
Interesting. But what does "all advice is autobiographical" have to do with teaching? 

The cacophony of advice given to teachers these days comes not from teachers but from corporations. The most often named one is Pearson, of course. 

"Nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas," says Kleon. This is true for teaching, too. 

Advice from experienced teachers comes from our autobiographical experiences in the classroom and often from what we've learned by constructing our own lesson plans and curriculum. Teaching as a profession is in danger of losing a generation of teachers who entered the profession before the onslaught of prefab teaching units and the internet. 

"You are a mashup of what you let into your life," says Kleon. For teachers this is important because taking the path of least resistance, choosing unimaginative curriculum from corporations rather than "stealing" from real teachers  in real classrooms turns us into corporate cogs rather than artistic teachers. 

Kleon quotes Steve Jobs in his TED talk: "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." Permit me to re-imagine Jobs's epiphany: Good teachers copy. Great teachers steal. And we know from whom to steal. 

For example, when I began teaching 33 years ago, I regularly asked students to read about current events. I taught them to summarize using these readings and discussions. Somehow I diverted, sadly, from that course. Then in 2009 I read Kelly Gallagher's book Readicide and discovered the "Article of the Week" idea. Gallagher gets credited often for this idea, but I first learned about it from my high school speech/debate/drama teacher, Nydia May Jenkins. 

Miss J. is really my first teaching mentor because she's been my muse over the years, and as a young teacher I stole from her by using the handouts I had collected as her student. 

Find what's worth stealing, and find it from teachers, not from corporations. We're told that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Kleon says it isn't imitation that's flattery; "transformation is flattery." 

When we steal like a teacher, we take ideas and inspiration from our network of colleagues, whether they are in our building or in our professional organizations or online. We also eschew the "canned" curriculum, the fodder of mass-produced bland curriculum that tastes like melba toast to our students and makes us feel less like a gourmet chef than like Chef Boyardee. Lets face it: Food out of a can tastes more like a MRE than like a meal in a five-star restaurant. 

When I post teaching ideas and lessons on this blog, I'm sharing a narrative, the autobiographical story of my teaching life. That's my bottom line. What's the bottom line for Pearson and other companies hocking canned curriculum? 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Collaboration Story: A Day with Drue

"So I have been given the solo task of creating the entire high school curriculum map..." 

Thus began a text I received a few days ago from Drue, the fabulous student teacher I shared with a colleague last year. Feeling a little overwhelmed as a first year teacher now tasked with the chore of mapping the high school English curriculum for her small district, Drue first planned to use my district's maps as a jumping off point but soon discovered that the books available in her district present an additional challenge. That's when she emailed me. 

I offered to meet with Drue, so she drove the 105 miles from Murtaugh, Idaho to my home in Chubbuck, Idaho so we could gather around my kitchen table and collaborate. 
Drue and I working at the dining table. 
First, we did a little catching up, and I gave Drue a tour of my home after introducing her to the dogs, Puck and Snug, who embrace new friends once they've been bribed with a treat! 

Idaho has adopted the Common Core State Standards and envisioned them as the Idaho Core Standards. Consequently, Drue's district expects teachers to align curriculum to the standards. Essentially, Idaho has defined and interpreted the CCSS and repackaged them as the ICS. Since I have worked extensively aligning curriculum and creating an English 12 course based on the CCSS for the NEABLMTP, I suggested Drue look to the CCSS as her guide. 

Dre already knows, via our discussions last year and via my work with the MTP, the concerns I have w/ the CCSS and how to align curriculum with the standards and keep creativity and student choice within the standards' parameters. For new teachers, both the CCSS and the ICS offer a shortcut to reinventing the wheel in terms of constructing a curriculum map. For Drue this is vital because not only is she a first year teacher and the only English teacher at Murtaugh High School, so is her middle school colleague. Also her principal is a first-year principal. 

As so often happens when a teacher begins a new job, Drue has been left with no information about what the students have been reading from year to year. All she has are Prentice Hall textbooks from 1999! Thus, as our first task, we sorted the books Drue has at her disposal and talked about the budget for new books. Drue told me that her predecessor has not been teaching any of Shakespeare's plays in recent years. 

Throughout the day, Drue and I worked on the following:

  • Creating a daily routine that makes room for independent student reading;
  • Deciding how to assign the books available to each grade level and incorporate literature circles into the plan;
  • Planning ways to build community with students in the opening days of the school year;
  • Determining a potential theme for the first semester that reminds all that change for students and teachers is challenging but that all are learning together;
  • Finding common ground in terms of types of units for various grades--especially 9-10-- that offer students choice, that reduce the amount of reading Drue will need to complete, and that create cohesion in a standards-aligned curriculum. Since the CCSS groups 9-10 and 11-12, we worked within those guidelines. 
  • Incorporating Shakespeare into grades 9, 10, 12 (and possibly 11). Since CCSS suggests Macbeth be taught in 10th grade, I suggested that Drue teach Macbeth to both 10th and 12th graders next year. She has the curriculum from the Folger's Shakespeare Set Free and my unit from the MTP. 
  • Putting poetry into each grade level. Drue taught a fabulous poetry unit last year that focused on Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British poetry. Indeed, her wonderful illuminated text of "Dulce et Decorum Est" is part of my poetry unit in the MTP
  • Laying the groundwork for aligning writing based on the six purposes Kelly Gallagher identifies in Write Like This. I suggested that Drue work with the six purposes at each grade level and vary the task so that students aren't all assigned the same topic for major papers but have the opportunity to write and revise for each of the six purposes Gallagher suggests. 
  • Trimming the work load by using the same quick write topic for each grade level and using the 3P grading method, with modifications, from the Teaching That Makes Sense website. 

Drue's new principal wants her to submit a plan for each day of the semester before school starts, as well as align the curriculum and list the point value of each task. Of course, this is absolutely asinine and a sure-fire way to drive a new teacher out of the building before the first bell rings. As a master manipulator, I offered a solution to this mandate that will save Drue's sanity and satisfy the new principal who plans "to change some things around here."

After lunch, a time for sharing personal stories and "hey, did you know" news, Drue commented: "I bet you didn't realize when you took me on last year that you're stuck with me for life." 

Well, that's a happy thought and certainly the way I envision a happy collaboration, mentoring relationship, and friendship evolving as the start of another new school year approaches. 

Drue, I <3 You, my colleague and friend. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Scholar Writes about My Teaching--A Very Cool Experience

Back in 2011 I participated in a webstitute (online PD) on the English Companion Ning. Gary Anderson invited me to contribute a session about teaching Shakespeare.

Fast Forward to last winter.

I was contacted by Luke Rodesiler PhD, a professor at the University of South Florida, and asked if he could use my ECN session as part of an ethnographic study of English teachers in online contexts.

Fast Forward to summer 2014.

I had forgotten about being contacted by Professor Rodesiler until I received a "scholar alert" from my friend Michael LoMonico, senior education consultant at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Professor Rodesiler's findings were recently published in the CITE Journal in an article titled "Weaving Contexts of Participation Online: The Digital Tapestry of Secondary English Teachers." 

Title Page from CITE Journal
Although I am not one of the five teachers Dr. Rodesiler focuses on in the article, he did include a substantial section about my participation in the ECN webstitute as part of his analysis of Gary's online life. I am so excited and honored to have my work featured in a scholarly journal, and I'm grateful for Professor Rodesiler's positive analysis of both the webstitute and of my session.

Professor Rodesiler characterizes my session's commentary and video components:

In her forum, Glenda facilitated a discussion about teaching the works of William Shakespeare by tapping the multimodal affordances of the ECN. Her forum featured an animated presentation, embedded videos from her classroom that showed students engaging in instructional activities such as line tossing (Video 1) and silent scenes(Video 2), and hyperlinks to corresponding assignments and handouts she had uploaded to the ECN. 

Opening a virtual window into Glenda’s classroom, those multimodal components helped to facilitate dialogic interactions, as attendees responded to the embedded videos by expressing concerns about how such activities might work in their unique teaching contexts and by seeking clarification about the goals of the instructional activities shared.

Of course, there is so much more to the article, including examples of PD via Twitter chats, online queries for lesson and unit planning help, ways technology enhances "alphabet writing," etc.

At this juncture, there should be no doubt that social media and online tools both enhance our teaching lives, help us form friendships with other teachers, and break down the barriers so that we find solace in our common struggles and teachers who will celebrate with us in our successes.

I'm thrilled to have been a small part of the ongoing body of evidence validating organic PD and teachers having an online, professional presence.

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Old Ain't Dead": Thoughts on Teaching Experience & Teaching Artisans

This week I saw narratives that have provoked me to reflect in this space on being an old a veteran an experienced a seasoned a teacher in a world that often devalues and marginalizes the expertise lifers such as myself bring to the classroom. 

See my dilemma? I don't even know what moniker to attach to myself and to my un-novice colleagues. The word veteran also bothers me because it, too, can imply that such a person no longer belongs in the classroom. Consider that we refer to retired military and those no longer on active duty as veterans

Writing in The Huffington Post, Nancy Barile addresses a common lie purported about teachers with longevity: We lack energy and enthusiasm for our work. Barile quotes a guest presenter at her school as saying, "the faculty is young and vibrant. It's such a breath of fresh air." In my own school, it's often veteran teachers who volunteer to work sporting meets, for example. We're the ones who typically understand how to find unique professional development opportunities and who seek out national conferences. Schools also need experienced teachers to help the newbies navigate the schools culture and traditions. 

I'm the oldest and most experienced in my department, and a veteran colleague and I are the ones who actively seek opportunities to present at conferences. Additionally, I had already taught more than 20 years when I decided to navigate the rigorous NBCT certification process. Another colleague, with over 15 years experience, and I are plotting a major project that we see as a way to challenge ourselves and energize our practice while contributing to the professional conversation among ELA teachers navigating the changes and challenges we all face.  
Me w/ Story, a veteran English teacher and expert on teaching Native American
students. Story teaches at Shoban High School on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
As Barile argues in addressing another lie associated with being an experienced teacher, the ability to use technology effectively in the classroom isn't the exclusive domain of new teachers. Indeed, I've had to teach several student teachers how to use technology in the classroom. Many of the more seasoned teachers I know are the most adept at using technology. This past year I had to remediate my college level speech class after allowing a new person to teach them how to research for their speeches, and this is someone who should have known the skills at least as well as do I. 

Youth does not guarantee technological prowess because often young people use technology more as a social medium than as one for learning. Rarely do I see students in my classroom who understand technology as well as I do. I teach them how to use Google docs, how to create Pecha Kucha presentations, how to blog and include links and embedding in their posts, how to annotate YouTube videos, how to research using databases, how to annotate online, how to use Evernote, etc. 

I follow the Free Technology for Teachers Blog and learn about new tech tools from both experienced teachers who have vetted the tools in their classrooms. That said, I also look to tech savvy young teachers for lesson ideas, such as the infographic lesson I found via Chris Kervina's blog. 

However, the most savvy tech folks I know are teachers with more than ten years teaching experience. Often I share my knowledge with veteran and novice teachers. At a conference earlier this summer, I was one of the few attendees who used Twitter and tweeted during the conference; yet I was one of the oldest teachers attending the conference. This past school year, I shared my knowledge of Diigo in a session of my district's technology integration classes. 

I just finished my 33 year teaching and began using technology very early in my career. The first big tech project I taught was how to create a filmstrip, a lesson I found in an issue of Notes Plus, a NCTE publication. My favorite uses of technology in the classroom marry close reading with artistic expression. Many platforms, including screencasts, Prezi, YouTube, Toon Doo, Animoto, etc. offer me a way to teach students how to create artistic analysis of texts. 

Being around young teachers and teachers new to my building energizes me and motivates me to continue honing my craft. Drue, my superb student teacher this past year, taught me "find someone and ask" and how to make my delivery of instructions more visually appealing. Her eagerness to learn infused me with hope. She offered me collegiality, and we soon developed a fabulous synergy to our relationship. We experienced a valuable mentoring relationship. I nicknamed her mini-me after she told a colleague (and students) that we finish one another's thoughts and that we are really in sync with one another. We decided that we're interchangeable. So in sync were we that it's hard to explain the exact nature of our mutual mentoring of one another. 
Drue: She's in the back seat during a lunch
break to Sonic because she's young! 
There's a sinister undercurrent at work in efforts to abolish teachers' due process rights (a.k.a. tenure) and in rhetoric that attributes a school's improvement to ignoring seniority. Students recognize that experienced teachers often have more stable classroom environments than do novices. On many occasions my students have shared their desire to avoid both student teachers and new teachers in the building. They perceive teachers with whom they're family has had experience as offering a sense of comfort and belonging. 
All in the Family: Kadee, E.J. mom and colleague Angie, and Steeli.
I taught all three kids, two in more than one class.
Celebrating Steeli's graduation from college. 
This past year I taught several students whose siblings had been in my class as well as students who had me for speech or Communication 1101. I've often had parents of special service students request me as their child's teacher because they know I'll work diligently for their kids and implement the accommodations in an IEP or 504 plan, something many new teachers struggle with. As has been noted by others, familiar teacher faces in a building bring stability to a school. 

Those who privilege youth and inexperience over age and experience seek to create a schism among teachers. It's incumbent upon us to protect our profession from efforts to divide and conqueror. Novice teachers need to recognize and acknowledge that a lack of experience necessitates they open themselves to learning from those who have amassed a repertoire of expertise. We who have taught for many years can learn from the newbies, but I won't go so far as to say they bring more to the table than do the veterans. Nor will I concede that they are equal in terms of their contribution to a school's culture. Our respective contributions are different and valuable.
Celebrating Gina's hooding. She'll be working on a PhD. in speech pathology at the
University of California in Merced this fall. I taught her brother Billy this past year.
I am not an athlete whose ability to perform peaked in my 30's. In contrast, a teacher's cognitive skills increase over time, with experience, and through continuous study and reflection; we hone our craft as we nurture both it and our careers. Indeed, we are like artisans because teaching is both art and craft, and like artists whose styles evolve, we too change and refine ourselves throughout our practice. 

The teacher as artisan may be old, but we're not dead. We are masters who have created classrooms that serve students in unique and inspiring ways as they craft their futures.