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.