Teaching Teachers

I’ve written before about teaching teachers, it is something that is always on the surface of my thoughts as both a teacher and a scholar.

It is particularly prevalent in my mind now as I prepare to syllabi for the coming semester. The following thoughts and emotions are running through my mind as I prepare reading lists, assignments, and weekly class meetings:

  • I am excited to meet new students and to learn from them.
  • I am daunted by the responsibility of guiding new teachers as they develop the professional teaching personas. There is so much content that needs to be covered, but I also want to be sure and provide the “space” needed to process new conceptions of teaching.
  • I am more committed than ever to working with teachers at all levels of development. This semester I am teaching a graduate level children’s literature course online. There are both current practicing teachers as well as preservice teachers in the class. I’m looking forward to interactions across experience levels.

In addition to developing syllabi and learning goals for my students, I’m also reflecting on how I want to approach the semester. For this semester, an overarching goal across all of my courses is that I want to help teachers to develop their professional personas in ways that they feel confident not only using professional understandings in the classroom with students, but also outside of the classroom.

Children’s Lit Course Book List

This fall, I get to teach a children’s literature course again after a year away from it. I posted the following update on facebook on friday:

Just submitted the booklist for my children’s lit class – I always have such a hard time with this task because there is so much amazing stuff out there! Ended up with a five whole-class reads and the rest will be student choice.

A number of people commented that they would like to know what I selected so I’m posting it here for whomever is interested. Even as I type this blog post, I’m questioning myself. After six years teaching children’s literature courses, I’ve realized that there is no such thing as “the perfect booklist”. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to get as close as possible.

The course is offered as part of an elementary education degree and focuses on literature for students in grades K-8. When I selected titles, I wanted to be sure to represent a variety of authors and main characters. I selected the following five titles as whole-class reads. We will examine them closely as individual readers, in small groups, and as a whole class. The remainder of the texts will be selected by each individual students.

  • Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
    • Picturebook, exemplary examples of illustration elements, fantasy/realism, examination of author’s other works, main character = white boy

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  • Art & Max – David Wiesner
    • contemporary picturebook, fantasy, artistic elements,examination of author’s other works, main character = animals

  • Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Wilson
    • verse/poemic novel, memoir, historical, multiple awards, main character = black girl

  • The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate
    • animal main characters, fantasy/realism discussion, award winner, main character = gorilla

Cover of The One and Only Ivan

  • Out of My Mind – Sharon Draper
    • contemporary realistic fiction, school setting, ability/disability, main character = girl

The following will serve as ‘textbooks’. I selected books that will allow us to read, think, and discuss children’s literature and reading from different perspectives. Some of these perspectives include: personal reading, critical reader, review, analyst, adult, teacher, and book guide.

  • Sutton & Parravano (2011) A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature 

A Family of Readers - Softcover

  • Nel & Paul (2011) Keywords for Children’s Literature

Keywords for Children's Literature

  • additional articles from journals like Language Arts and The Reading Teacher to fill out teaching perspective 

I’m excited to revisit all of these texts on the “other side” of my dissertation, but mostly I’m excited to study them again alongside my students because I always have new realizations and understandings.

Engaged teacher, Engaged readers…

This is my 7th year teaching in Michigan State University’s Teacher Education Program. I have taught students at almost every phase of the program. Because Michigan State’s program is so large, I often don’t see or hear from my students after I’ve taught them. I think of many of them and wonder how they are doing, what literature they are sharing with their students, and how they are managing their first years of teaching. Today – I got to visit one of those students. It was so amazing for both of us. I looked at her and said, “Do you still have days when you can’t believe you are doing what you love?” She smiled widely and I said, “me too”.

Then, Ms. C lead me to the back of her classroom. “This is the first thing I want to show you.” I walked around a corner to see her classroom library. She told me about how she has built it up so far (books, shelves, book boxes, beanbags) that she has implemented student librarians (“we’re still working out some of those kinks”), and that she can’t wait to meet Donalyn Miller at MRA this year. She has used donors choose to fund numerous projects in her room and is always trying to add more books for her students.

I stayed in her classroom for almost an hour during their “read to self” time. I watched third grade children, some of whom are still learning English, select their own books and read. They read deeply and widely. They read non-fiction books about Penguins and tornados. They read Skippyjon Jones, Clifford, Little Critter, Junie B. Jones, and Froggie. They read picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. They abandoned books when they needed to, and selected other ones instead. As their teacher walked around the room and conferred with students, I joined in asking them to share with me. Some read outloud to me, some showed me a favorite illustration, and another boy showed me a cookie recipe he copied from Clifford. They were so ENGAGED in reading. And this was after lunch and after recess on a warm day.

Then they each wrote a short “review” of one of the books they had read. Each card included the title, author, star rating, if the book was fiction or non-fiction, and 1-2 sentences about what they liked or what it was about. THEN they booktalked in pairs. Did I mention how engaged they were? How they were asking each other questions and asking to share with me?

It made me think about Donalyn’s newest book Reading in the Wild and her premise that we don’t just want students to read in our classes, we want them to keep reading afterwards. It doesn’t matter their age. This is what I hope for my own teacher education students; that they will be engaged readers in our classes together and then want to help their own students develop as not just competent readers, but also as engaged readers As I looked around the room, I saw that Ms. C had taken time to find a book of her own, sit down next to a student and read. She not only set up the environment, procedures, and instruction for her students – she herself was an engaged reader.

As Junie B would say, “It was a thing of beauty I tell you.”

Why Teach?

Video

This week, I taught my last 2 classes as a graduate assistant at Michigan State University. One of them was a course for our Elementary Education seniors titled Teaching English Language Arts to Diverse Learners. Most of the students in the course will go on to complete a one-year teaching internship next year.

I love working with preservice teachers. They are enthusiastic, curious, and passionate about their career choice. They are also nervous – rightfully so. About 2/3 of the way through the semester, I realized that there were quite a few students who were feeling panic. They had reached the stage of “realizing how much more they have to learn.” I saw and heard some of them questioning their decision to become teachers.

We spent time in class together talking about professional dispositions of teachers such as asking for help, acknowledging what we don’t know, as well as what we do know, and working to empower ourselves as professional educators. I am purposefully using the inclusive “we” in this description. I consider myself an educator who is always learning more about teaching. Always seeking out mentors, research, strategies, and questions to help me become better. I learned a lot from this group of students. I realized I need to do something different.

I listened. I read. I thought. I read some more. And I realized that what they needed was to learn how to begin to think like empowered teachers, to believe in themselves and their choices. I talked about my PLC (professional learning community) that I’ve developed online. I went to the Michigan Reading Association Conference and came back excited and energized to share things I had learned. I read THRIVE – Meeno Rami’s new book. I asked questions of colleagues and mentors. And then I asked them to think about things that they can do to empower themselves.

Feeling empowered as a teacher is difficult in today’s educational climate, but I know amazing teachers who are doing incredible work. And here is a group that I’m pleased to be sending to join the ranks. To help them remember their goals, profession, and passion for teaching, I asked them to complete the phrase, “I TEACH….” I hope they will watch this video now and next year to remember that they are incredible empowered teachers.

At the end of Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to thank each of them for helping me to continue to become a better teacher educator.

Here are their responses:

 

As I posted this video, I realized I hadn’t answered my own prompt:

I teach to help the next generation of teachers become empowered professionals who make informed pedagogical decisions based on what is best for their students as a community as as individuals.

 

Relatability?

Every semester that I have taught children’s literature courses, I hear and read the phrase
“I really related to this character/book.” or “That book is so relatable.” It has always bothered me a bit, not because relating is bad but because I see people thinking about NOT relating as a negative thing. I sometimes hear preservice teachers talk about children’s literature as if the goal of matching books to readers is about finding a book that is relatable. This is problematic.

Yes, it is important to read books where the reader can “see themselves” but this isn’t the only type of book we should read – regardless of age.

One thing that bothers me about the idea of “relatability” is that I see students shut down and disengage with a book if they can’t relate to it (their language, not mine). I also hear students say a book is “so good” ONLY because they can relate to it – without any further exploration into what exactly they mean by that term. I encourage the students in my class to be honest in what they think about a book – like/dislike, love/loathe – but that they also need to explore WHY they are having that response. So if they don’t like something, I want them to explore those negative feelings more deeply. Negative doesn’t have to mean disengage. I’ve been asking them to think more deeply about articulating what pushes them away or makes them feel like something isn’t “relatable”. This requires have a sense of ourselves as readers, but also have a sense of literary elements, literary devices, and genre because they give us language to articulate our thinking more clearly in writing.

In class this week, I talked to my students about using “connect” instead of “relate”. I’m trying this language because of the way that the term “connect” implies a more tangible thing. The hope is that by more explicitly considering not only WHEN readers make a connection but also HOW they do or do not make a connection they will be able to articulate more of their response.

 

Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Theory matters…

Theory is part of my life as a doctoral student. It was part of my life as an undergrad but in a very different way – it was music theory and it was a tough class for me. I had to learn, understand, and apply the underpinnings of how music was constructed – scales, modes, tempo, motifs, etc.  I also had to take music history classes to understand the historical contexts that composers wrote and musicians performed. All of this helped me to become a better musician – both performing and consuming. Theory mattered a lot, even though I did my share of complaining about it.

Students in undergraduate teacher education programs across the U.S. take courses that often include theory, and often complain that it has nothing to do with practice. There is a perception that theory won’t actually help a teacher teach – that classroom management is more important. Does theory matter? How can it help someone learn to teach?

I am currently rereading Teaching Children’s Fiction edited by Charles Butler, in particular the chapter by Roderick McGillis titled Looking in the Mirror: Pedagogy, Theory, and Children’s Literature. One quote that has stuck with me is:

The resistance to theory we sometimes meet in the classroom stems from an ingrained notion that literary activity ought to be natural, fun, and self-evident. p. 89

While McGillis is referring to literature classrooms, I have heard this repeatedly in various courses I teach and the undergraduate and graduate level in a college of education. I see this imagined notion regularly in both my children’s literature and literacy methods courses. It’s interesting because it serves two purposes: it means that the students shouldn’t have to “work this hard” to engage with course materials, and also that they don’t really need to understand any theory to become an elementary school teacher. Before I continue I want to be clear that I realize not ALL preservice teachers think this way, but this way of thinking has been prevalent across my own 5 1/2 years of teaching at a large midwest University.

Faculty at colleges and universities are currently teaching THE MOST TESTED generation of students ever to come through our doors. Our students were starting elementary school when NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was passed. They have been tested, practice-tested, re-tested, taught to the test, and tested again. Many come in wanting “absolute” answers and rubrics for everything. This isn’t always possible, nor is it always best pedagogical practice. But what strikes me is that this generation of tested students is now in our College of Education, learning to be teachers. Given the fact that new teachers are likely to teach in the same ways that they were taught (Kennedy, 1999), this makes me exceedingly concerned in this time of CCSS and NCTQ.

Learning about theory and how to apply it is hard intellectual work, particularly if approaching it with notions of “natural, self-evident, and fun”. It’s also particularly difficult if you’ve never ever done it before (because you were busy taking multiple choice tests).  I think one of the things that makes it most challenging is that it means we must consider ourselves, the contexts we live in, and the choices that we make. Theory forces us to become self-reflective, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable. It can make us feel vulnerable and as if we don’t know anything. But that is not bad, it is how we grow. And I believe that students in classrooms today deserve teachers who think deeply, who understand theories behind their pedagogical decisions, and who question if the CCSS are really what is best for their students. I know we have many teachers like this, but they need support. More people need to question the wisdom of non-educators making decisions about education, the created testing “panic”, and ultimately to support that teachers are professional educators who can make decisions about how best to teach their students.

While learning music theory many years ago may not have been fun or seemed applicable, it made me a better musician, which at the time was my goal (I was a music major). I didn’t always understand that the two were connected, but the further progressed the more connections I could see. I still loved making music, it could still be fun (though not always), and ultimately I had to work at it. Like music, teaching may be fun sometimes, and there may be elements of it that are intuitive for some people – but it is tough, intellectual work as well that deserves respect and theoretical backing.

to be continued….