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.

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.”

The power of language

While talking with my new children’s literature students last night, I was telling them about some of the goals of our course – specifically about learning and using the language of literary, design and illustrative elements.

I used the analogy of listening to music. Often someone will say that they love X type of music or Y performer. When asked why, the response is commonly, “I don’t know, I just like the way they sound.” Ok – that may be true, but that explanation does not help me (or anyone else) understand what it is that specifically draws that listener to that specific style of music or performer. I was a music major as an undergraduate student. I distinctly remember that the more that I learned about music theory and music history – the better able I was to convey both what I did and did not like in music.

The same can be said of reading and literature. I don’t expect the students in my class to like everything that they read, but I do expect them to read. I do expect them to be able to articulate what it is they notice, respond to, revolt against, or get sucked into while they are reading. I expect them to use language like genre, point of view, and style; hue, medium, and layout. Not in a way that shows they only regurgitates a definition – but in a way that shows they have a deeper understanding of those elements and the ways they can impact a reader.

Many of them come in with negative memories of needing to interpret a story in a particular way or of being judged by an AR (Accelerated Reader) score. They have forgotten how to read for pleasure, or perhaps never learned. While I sincerely hope that at some point during the semester, I will put the “right book” in each of my students hands – I realize that may not happen. But I can give each of them language to help them better convey what they do and don’t enjoy about the books that they read. Language that can help better equip them to ask for specific qualities they find pleasurable.

Next week we start with picture books. I can’t wait.