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.

 

Thinking about didactic (and not) books in classrooms

Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli

I love the book Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli for many reasons. The rich colors, full bleed illustrations, and double page spreads invite readers to join in on the adventure of the main character. The repetitive text as she swings (“higher, higher”) provides an opportunity for pre-emergent readers to read along, but also doesn’t limit opportunities for readers of all ages to fill in gaps and add to the story on their own. It presents the possibilities of imagination when doing something as seemingly simple as playing on a swing set.

This weekend I discovered a newer book by the same author, No No Yes Yes.  Even though it is written and illustrated by the same person, it is a very different kind of book.

No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli

In this picture book, a diaper-clad baby is told “no no” to things s/he shouldn’t do and “yes yes” to things s/he should do instead. For example, drawing on the walls is “no no”,  but drawing on paper is “yes yes”. My 18-month-old niece loved the book, as do her parents. It has given them language to help her not hit the dog or dump food on the floor.

While both of these books could be read with an 18-month old or a preschooler, No No Yes Yes is a great example of a didactic book. It is a book that I would use in my children’s literature class to help students to understand that a didactic book has a clear and distinct lesson. This is does not mean that No No Yes Yes is a “bad book” and that Higher Higher is a “good book”. But understanding how didacticism can function in books (for children or adults) is important for teachers to consider when selecting books. This means that if you are looking for a book that is going to foster interesting, open-ended, and authentic discussion focused the book, you wouldn’t want to use a text that is strongly didactic. The discussion will usually fall flat, or move into other responses about the “lesson”.

Students who are more advanced thinkers often prefer more open-ended books because they allow for a wider range of interpretations and thinking. Ultimately, didactic books fill a need, but it’s important to have (and use) a variety of types of books in our classrooms.

Connections: Extra Yarn and Philosophy of Childhood

My youngest daughter (8 1/2 years old) just asked if she could read me a picture book. She gave me four to select from and I chose this one:

Here is what she had to say about it after she read to me:

I think that there wasn’t any yarn in the box for the Duke because it only worked for people who needed it. The Duke was rude and only wanted it (the yarn) to make him famous and popular. Annabelle was a young girl who wanted to make a change in the world that she lived in. It didn’t say that exactly in the story but that’s what I think because she was the only one who could get the colorful yarn. Annabelle chose to share the yarn to help make the world a better place. The Duke was just being greedy.

I love asking people what they think about books they are reading or have read. I specifically use the term “people” because age doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a preschool child who isn’t yet decoding words, or a Nerdy Book Club friend who reads voraciously, everyone can say something about a story. It makes me think about the phrase I often hear from adults in regards to children reading certain books:

Children won’t understand that. It’s too __________ (insert descriptor like complex, scary, or deep).

This comment makes me crazy. While comments like this may be true for some readers (again regardless of age), it is not true of all readers. When adults make decisions about what a child can or can not engage with before even talking to the child, it worries me. I was reading today about The Philosophy of Childhood. I’m still reading and processing – and will be for a while because it is a big part of my dissertation. But as I was listening to Annie tell me what she thought about Extra Yarn, it made me think back to this quote by Gareth Matthews:

“The models of development that theories of childhood offer to stimulate our research and challenge our attempts at understanding children may have many useful functions. But we must guard against letting those models caricature our children and limit the possibilities we are willing to recognize in our dealings with them as fellow human beings” (Matthews, 1994, p. 29).

If we, as adults and teachers, are too cautious about what we think children are capable or in terms of responding to literature, we are shortchanging them from a world of possible experiences.