This I Believe

As the new school year begins, a look at what grounds me…

When I went into the schools to observe for the first time, I had some discussions with my cooperating teacher that were informative, insightful, and offered me a veteran’s viewpoint of the frontlines. But by far the most intriguing question she asked me was during a rather lively exchange about her former students and the things they had gone on to achieve. Grinding the discussion to a standstill, she looked me in the eye and asked, “What do you believe? What DO you believe?” I didn’t have time to formulate an answer I thought she’d like, or one that seemed very professional—I was under the gun. From my heart I answered, “That everyone is here for a reason, and that those reasons are different for us all.” I’ll never forget her smile when she looked at me and said, “That’s a good start.”

The way that I teach is guided by that belief in all areas—what I teach, how I teach, when I teach—it’s all about looking at what we all bring to the table, what we need, and going from there.

One of the best places to see that is by looking at the texts I use in the classroom. Of course I use the Essentials List that is required by the district. What I am willing to do, though, is go beyond that in any way possible to reach every student. If the only thing a student reads is the back of the box of cereal while he eats breakfast, I’m willing to analyze the cereal box as a piece of visual text to show the skills we can use to analyze other media texts. I’ll bring in whatever makes it possible to scaffold that student to another level, to encourage critical thinking about whatever they encounter—nursery rhymes, Young Adult literature, manuals, non-fiction, videos, commercials and advertising, and the more traditional and multicultural literature I love.

That includes, I think, teaching some material that may be banned or challenged. Students gravitate toward material that asks about and addresses the situations in life that are tough for us all while they try to make sense of their identities. Sometimes those texts or materials make us uncomfortable. I think the best way to lessen that uncomfortable feeling is to have open discussions about the things that make us feel that way. It also helps to open a discussion about why some might feel the need to restrict the availability or alter the content of some texts and a discussion on how valid those opinions might be. The bottom line for me is that those challenged texts often ask the hard questions, and the hard questions engage the students.

It also includes teaching the students to read texts they encounter more frequently and cranking up their ability to view media texts with a critical eye. Theory that applies to great literature applies just as well to film, advertising, music—the possibilities are endless. The study of language can easily expand from the traditional view to include the language of text-messaging or the adolescent culture in general. Teaching them to read the texts they are in contact with everyday reinforces those skills that they need to view all texts critically.

I am willing to be a fanatic about what I teach, because enthusiasm is contagious, but I am not as traditional as many of my colleagues. I’m willing to cross boundaries of all sorts to get my students into the “flow” when they read—Wilhelm’s concept of that place where time and other external forces fade when we are doing something we enjoy.

Grammar instruction is one of those areas. I lean more to the descriptivist side of the argument. Raised under the prescriptivist, traditional approach, I understand the need to teach Standard English. What I don’t understand is the approach that teaches it in a vacuum without grounding it in practical need based on what the student is trying to communicate, to what audience, and to what purpose. I think grammar instruction should be integrated into writing instruction, and areas of weakness in grammar should be addressed as they arise in writing.

Writing instruction itself needs to be done without interrupting the magic of the process, without crushing the writer many of these students are by insisting that they reduce the practice to something mechanical. As Ralph Fletcher says, it is the end result that matters in writing, and there are as many ways to get to that result as there are writers. As a teacher of writing, I’d like to be an effective mentor. I’ve encountered many students already who are talented and willing to share their work both publically and privately, in front of the classroom, on their own websites, and I’d like to continue to support that sharing and their growth as writers.

I think that the classroom needs to be a community of learners, where we all care for one another and respect the differences we bring to the table. Many of my assessments are reflective in nature and are shared in class in some way to promote that sense of tolerance and community. Students often work in a variety of configurations from individually to larger groups.

No Child Left Behind and public opinion has strengthened the push for accountability, and most of that is being done through assessment. Assessment in my classroom will be driven by standards, so that the students should do well in high-stakes testing situations like the HSAP or PSAT, but the assessments themselves will take a variety of forms. Students have strengths in different areas, and some test better with certain forms of assessment. There is a component of student choice in many assignments to promote engagement and involvement. A variety of assessment forms allow for students to do well in their areas of strength while working on areas where they may need improvement.

The more I’m in the schools and around students, the more firmly I believe these approaches can work. We all need to be met where we are, to be seen as individuals with individual needs, for instruction to be effective. It must be relevant to us, and to the lives we see ourselves leading. It must build on what we know, on our own experiences, and then broaden to include the experiences of others.

These are the things that I believe.

Above all, I believe that teaching is an honorable profession, and that those in the profession should be just as driven as in any other to learn new things, to grow as new ideas and concepts enter their field. I believe, as a teacher, that feedback from others in my profession, through conversation, conferences, and professional organizations, is an invaluable resource that can keep me pushing to reach my students in new and innovative ways that I might otherwise not consider.

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