Two “Snow” Days and The Joys of TA-ing a College Education Course

Today marks the second day of school that we’ve missed this week — the first due to a wild Maine blizzard that knocked the power out at the rural schools that make up my district and the second due to a power outage just at my school. If this is any indication of how the winter is going to go, I’m going to be in school until July!

This post seems like a good opportunity to write about something that I have been doing this fall — serving as an informal teaching assistant (TA) in a senior education seminar at my alma mater. Initially, I was quite anxious about this role, because I felt like I wouldn’t have much expertise to share with students who are just three years younger than me. I needn’t have worried, however, because it turns out that I do actually know quite a lot about being out in the world of American public schools. My role has sort of blossomed into that of a “real-world reality-check” provider. As someone who shares many of the lofty ideals about social justice that the students in the course hold, it is beneficial, I think, for them to hear about the ways in which their paths will not always be easy, the hard choices that they will have to make, the balance they will have to strike between mandates and their own desires. In other words, I’ve fashioned my role to position myself as the person that I would have benefitted from hearing from when I sat in their chairs, about to embark upon the world of teaching for the first time.

The whole experience has been so engaging and enriching. It’s much more effective than any other professional development experience in which I have participated. The students ask the hard, meaningful questions that often are not asked in my school or district, and it has really led me to re-examine the reasons why I am doing the things that I do in my own classroom. In contrast to other professional development experiences, which are usually not about overarching philosophy, but about the latest fad strategy, being a teaching assistant has forced me to really hold a mirror up to myself and check whether what I am doing in the classroom really aligns with what I believe and who I aspire to be as an educator. It has not been an easy process, but I know that I am going to come away with some things that I need to change to re-orient my classroom practices, and that making those changes will help me get closer to being the type of educator that I want to be.

Additionally, I always find it so rewarding to be in a situation where everyone is thinking critically and deeply at every turn. Those spaces often seem rare in our society, where quick-fix solutions and the stresses of daily life are huge barriers to that type of slow, methodical thought process. I hope that I can keep seeking out these types of settings, because they, more than any others, seem to lead to real growth and seem, to me at least, like the best arena for developing ideas that will be truly transformational.


Tuned In and Fired Up

After a rough week — well, two days — in the classroom (long weekends and missing school for conferences just seems to yield classroom discombulation), I am really happy to find myself reading a light, but inspirational book to prepare for the class that I TA on Monday evenings at my alma mater. I actually read Sam Intrator’s Tuned In and Fired Up while I was a student in the same course with which I am now assisting. I remember really liking the book when I read it three years ago, but I think it resonated with me more now that I am in the real world of teaching.

The premise of this short book is that Intrator observes a stand-out high school English teacher for one year and seeks to understand what drives the extraordinary moments when students are “tuned in and fired up.” I was particularly appreciative, however, of the realistic tinge to the book: Intrator is very explicit about the fact that these moments are rare. And that in itself, I think, is a valuable message — teaching is clearly a marathon, not a sprint, yet I do sometimes find myself frustrated when each day doesn’t go smoothly and when something that I thought would create a magical moment just flops.

Anyway, this was a wonderful little book to read as the second month of school draws to a close — it was just the boost of inspiration that I needed to head back to the classroom this week with a smile and a revived sense of energy.


The Ideal Learning Environment?

One of the final assignments for the Leaders of Learning course that I have been taking this summer was to devise and explain a design for our “ideal learning environment.” In my experience as an educator, this has never been a question put in front of me — too often, we are expected to respond or to “fit” into the existing learning environments, not to devise creations of our own. Completing this task, though, was a really thought-provoking experience because it really forced me to consider and articulate my own theory of learning (and to see the mismatch between my vision and the traditional educational paradigms.)

Below you can see the design that I submitted for my ideal learning environment.


My design attempts to leverage both the physical and digital dimensions of learning to create a learning environment that supports the distributed collective mode of learning. In the physical space, I envision having a central learning lab/student center/library that would serve as a “hub” where learners could gather together and where the digital servers and employees would be housed. The sites for learning in the physical domain could include virtually any spaces or places in the community, which would emphasize that learning can truly happen anywhere and at any time.

In the digital domain, I envision there being a website that would contain information about courses in the physical domain but also have offerings for classes that met only in cyberspace.

Hopefully, this set up would allow people to form flexible networks to support their learning and to begin to see learning as something that can truly happen at any place and at any time. One challenge to this model is ensuring that a strong culture of learning would be able to develop — that’s something that I’m going to need to think more about as I keep considering this learning design.

After completing this exercise, I am really thinking hard about what I can do within my own classroom to try to bring some of the components of my model to fruition. I am particularly interested in forging partnerships with the community this year, as it is a central part of what I think makes for effective learning and taking this course this summer has reaffirmed how important that is to me.

What would your ideal environment for learning look like?

Reading Update

I have been reading up a storm lately! Here are synopses of three books from my 2014 reading list that I’ve tackled in the last few weeks.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions 
(Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana)

This very accessible (and quick) read lays out the “Question Formulation Technique,” a process designed to get kids honing their critical thinking skills while laying the groundwork for the learning that they will pursue in relation to a particular topic. The authors suggest that rather than teachers wracking their brains to develop robust framing questions, students can be tasked with brainstorming these inquiries. The process is simple and I am looking forward to trying it out with my students this fall. I am particularly drawn to the steps of the process where students think about open versus closed questions and then have to prioritize questions. I am always interested in trying to teach critical thinking skills and this seems like a viable strategy for doing just that in a simple way that directly relates to and even drives the curriculum and content we’ll be exploring.

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom (Jennifer Bryan)

I read several sections of this book during a course that I took on gender and sexuality and have been itching to read the rest for the better part of a year. This book ought to be required reading for all educators. Part informational guide to gender and sexuality and part handbook for addressing these topics in school settings with students of any age, this book is the best resource on gender and sexuality in education that I have seen. The book operates from the (I believe accurate) premise that gender and sexuality are always a part of the schooling experience, whether or not we choose to acknowledge this explicitly. It contains many practical examples for how to discuss these topics and how to best support all students as they work on the task of crafting this essential aspect of their identity. It left me with many great ideas to implement right away in my classroom.

There Are No Children Here (Alex Kotlowitz)

I could not put this book down this week. In my opinion, this book belongs right next to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities on the shelf of books that all human beings should read. This book, written in the ’90s by Alex Kotlowitz (one of my favorite contributors to the wonderful podcast “This American Life”), chronicles the lives of two young boys growing up in a project in the inner city of Chicago. This book both enthralled and incensed me — at points I could not believe that what I was reading could possibly be true. I expect that things may have slightly improved since this book was written, but I am certain that many of the same issues unfortunately still exist. I became so attached to the characters in this book and I am eager to try to find out what happened to them after the story ended. You should absolutely read this book!

Reign of Error

I have always been an advocate for the power of public schools — it is why I chose to work at a small, rural public school and not a fancy private or charter school. I strongly believe that it is public schools that offer the best chance for cultivating and realizing a democratic society. Unfortunately, that narrative is not heard often enough in an education climate that seems obsessed with ranking and denigrating public schools while trumpeting the outstanding successes of a few charter schools. (Disclaimer: I actually do have experience in a charter school — I completed an internship at a charter school last year.) I adamantly believe that if we’d be willing or want some students to experience a particular type of instruction or program, then it ought to be something that we would be willing to give to all students.

Because I hold these views, reading Diane Ravitch’s new book Reign of Error left me vigorously nodding my head and finally seeing data and research to back up these views that I have always instinctively possessed. The work is insightful and timely and I hope that it will be widely read by those who advocate for the practices which this work vehemently condemns — practices that do not have the best interests of our children at heart.

The position that I most appreciated was her insistent assertion that schools serve the communities in which they are located and thus must reflect the wishes of that community, not of a talking head far removed from that local environment. Thus, in order for schools to change, the community ought to be the one to initiate that process, not simply decrees and legislation that does not take into account a specific context. This resonates so strongly with my experience in a district in the midst of a transition to a standards-based system of education — the community is currently not adequately informed, which is leading to distrust of the public schools and ensures that these changes will not be reinforced or celebrated by those in the community. While the hand of communication and input has been extended, there seems to be little take up — but the absence of response should not taken as acceptance and certainly not considered “dialogue.”

As I continue to struggle to build connections and relationships with parents and to counter anitsocial messages that some of my students are receiving at home, I am also reminded daily of another of Ravitch’s key claims — that the family and community contributes far more to student achievement than schools and teachers. In fact, the data that she cites suggests that school factors may only be responsible for about 1/3 of the discrepancies in achievement between students. This has been one of the hardest truths to stumble upon this year — that despite my efforts, there will always be significant factors beyond my and my students’ control that will aid or hinder their educational experience. Thus, I strongly agree with Ravitch’s assertion that schools cannot simply proceed as though poverty does not exist, but that approaches to improve the economic stability of families must work in tandem with efforts to improve our schools.

In sum, this book provides a timely critique of standardized tests, efforts to blame school failure on teachers, charter schools, and efforts to privatize education. Teachers looking to gain a sense of the current pulse of the education field ought to consider this work essential reading.