Becoming a [Reflective] Teacher

When we were all lucky enough to have a full two weeks back at our placements, I realized exactly how hard it’s going to be to be a blogging teacher. It isn’t really a matter of time–when something means something to you, you make time for it. What’s really tough is having the BRAIN POWER it takes to reflect deeply and in meaningful ways because by the time I get home after a fully mentally, emotionally, intellectually involved day, I most want to get home to a big glass of OJ, not necessarily more mentally, emotionally, intellectually involved work. But I did it. I blogged through the pain, forced my brain power to its limits and I can honestly say, I am feeling more and more like a reflective teacher who blogs.

Over the course of the quarter, I’ve made more of an effort to do the things I talked about in my first blog of the quarter, “New Year, New Blogs.” I’ve been trying to approach our cohort’s blogging endeavor as something social, instead of solitary beings behind computer screens writing words that may or may not be read by others. Instead, I attempted to pay more attention to what my peers were saying and if I could, push back on their ideas, ask them questions to elaborate, or even just share what I thought about the same topic. I’ve tried to learn more about teaching from my peers and their practices and experiences while also contributing to their learning, like when I asked one blogger a question in order to better understand why he thought something happened in his classroom. He responded with a careful, clearly thought-out response that helped me think about my future classroom, and how I would want to support my students’ in reviewing prior knowledge and not assuming they know what I think they should already know.

Most importantly this quarter, I have grown as a teacher who reflects on what her students have learned. Although I’m certainly no where near the ability of an experienced teacher (like my CT) in analyzing students’ work and assessing it accurately and for further instruction, I’ve been careful to think about my focus students, their contexts, and the growth I have seen in them since the first day of school. Here is my very favorite piece of evidence from one of my focus students:

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Here’s a sample of his writing from November, which says, “I like going to Costco and getting a basketball hoop.” The picture is a clearer representation of his “story,” while he is still in the stage of an emergent writing, figuring out consonant sounds to show his words. The clearest word, “like,” is so clear because it was a sight word and he’d had lots of experience seeing and using it.

The next piece of evidence is his writing from this month in his very first “How to” book, which the students have recently started working on in Writer’s Workshop. His “How to Plant a Seed” guide shows measurable growth. He’s using vowels! He’s using word chunks like “ake” in “take” and “ing” in “growing”!! He’s very clearly using the sounds he hears in words to figure out which letters to use!!!

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Blogging isn’t hard work, but it is an act that requires reflection and full participation. Although the end of the quarter has come and I will no longer be required to blog, I’m excited to take this on fully as an educator, and not as a student doing it for a grade.

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I’m the Meanest Lady You Know

It had been a long, tiring day, and I was finally cleaning up, getting ready to head home to do…homework. The kids had been exceptionally loud, ignoring me and all the other tutors (who, to be honest, usually leave it to me to be “bad cop,” and who can blame them) and directions to settle down, stop hitting each other, stop with the paper airplanes, don’t leave until your parents have signed you out, we don’t use those words, etc. etc. I was at the end of my wits, asking myself “Why won’t they listen to me? What am I doing wrong?!” as I’m hurriedly putting materials away, nudging children out the door, reminding them they need to be signed in and out by a parent or guardians. And then this kid, this kid who has left me physically and mentally exhausted every session, this kid who tells me I make too many rules, says to me:

“You’re the meanest lady I know.”

There was no venom, no hatred or angry tone behind the words…just a cool, observable fact. As soon as he’d said it, though, I could see in his face that he knew he’d crossed an invisible line, that maybe it was mean. But it was said and he couldn’t take it back.

I didn’t really know what to say in response, but my pride took over and I simply said, “Well, thank you, Raymond,” (not his real name) and went about finishing my job.

I didn’t know, and I honestly still don’t know, what the best response would have been. Should I have been stern and firmly told him that was rude and he shouldn’t speak to people that way? Should I have told him it hurt my feelings (which it did)? Should I have scolded him and reminded him that I’m the adult and he just can’t talk to me that way? I just don’t know that any of those responses would have been better than mine.

But I’ve been thinking about this event a lot, about how I could have reacted and turned into a teaching/learning moment (for both of us), about how this will affect the way I interact this child from here on out. And it was this event that sprung into my mind immediately when reading about “gritty love” and the role love plays in the teaching profession in John Spencer’s A Sustainable Start.

Grit means to keep on keepin’ on, it means having tenacity and the refusal to let barriers ruin you. So to me, Spencer’s idea of “gritty love” means loving when it’s easier not to, loving even when there’s no reward, loving even when your love is handed back to you, loving especially those who make it hard for you to love them.

Raymond makes it hard for me to love him. He still doesn’t follow my directions, he still actively ignores me when I try to redirect him towards a more productive task than using the straws I’d intended for a bride-building activity as spitball weapons. I still tell him to follow directions, to listen to his tutors, to not stand on the furniture, to read to himself  or read a book to one of the younger kids, to put the candy away because it’s a distraction. I’m pretty sure all this still makes me the meanest lady he knows.

My dad tells me this is “a compliment.” My readings and my peers tell me it’s good to have structure and high expectations and to keep them consistent and that after a while he’ll appreciate these things and he only said what he said because he knows it’s safe for him to do so. I think it’s that last part I want him to know the most. That I’m the meanest lady he knows because I care about his mind and his safety and it’s more important for him to succeed than to like me. Little does he know that he’s giving me a lot of practice in gritty love.

Have you ever worked with a student who seems to make every attempt to test your patience? How have you responded, and did it ever change?

New Year, New Blogs

Now that I’ve been blogging for a while, I think it’s time that I really make this a place (blog) I can settle down in, somewhere I see myself living (blogging) in the future. And I’ve thought of some ways that I can do that this quarter:

1. Make connections with other bloggers. One of the things I reflected on last quarter with my blogging was that it’s a lot like networking. You’re trying to reach an audience with your thoughts and ideas, and you in turn be an audience for others. I’ve been reading A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown and it’s brought up for me exciting new ways to think about blogging–it’s a collective enterprise, where my words can be pushed back on, pulled apart by, or held up, by other bloggers, and I in turn do the same to their words. And these blogs are constantly changing, being affected by the bloggers who confront us with new or different or exciting ideas and question us, forcing us to answer. This quarter, I want to make a more concerted effort to be a vocal part of this collective by commenting on blogs and inviting them to answer my questions, or read something I may have written that addresses a similar idea they have brought up. In this way, I can build a readership that will, hopefully, push me to diversity my repertoire of writing topics.

2. Reference learning that broadens ideas of schooling and education. The blog I’ve enjoyed reading most these last couple of months comes from Jose Vilson, who I think does this really, really well. He, like myself, is a huge fan of hip-hop and I love seeing the references he makes to artists and songs, as well as the full-out posts he makes in regards to the ways hip-hop music can be connected to schooling and education, like this post about Kendrick Lamar, generational differences, the dilemma that exists between listening to “positive” or “negative” hip-hop, and how this dilemma does and could play out between a younger generation and the adults in their lives (ie, teachers). I find it refreshing that he takes a genre of music that is pervasive, a huge part of my life and certainly a huge part of our students’ lives, and connects the two cultures of hip-hop and education, making clear that education can come from hip-hop. Although maybe not with hip-hop, I would like to try doing something similar. We tell ourselves and our students that we are all always learning; I want that to show in my weekly reflections via this blog so that I give myself a chance to make those connections between what I see in the world and culture I live in, and the schooling and education I take part in.

3. Be more selfish. Write for me. I recently watched a documentary that followed several wounded combat veterans who wanted to be stand-up comedians. Each was being “mentored” by established comics. One of them, in an interview, said something along the lines of, “Write what you think is funny. Tell the jokes you think are funny, that you like. If you like them, if you think they’re funny, then the audience probably will to.” I think he said it much more eloquently and convincing than that, but as I sat down to write this post, it rose up in my memory as something I should bring to my blogging. Not my jokes, of course (maybe a little bit), but my voice, my true interests and passions within education, and what’s really on my mind as a future educator. I think the point the comedian was trying to make was that if you are proud of your material, it’s likely for good reason and the audience will enjoy it. So instead of trying too hard to be worth reading, I want to focus more on writing what is worth spending my time writing. Which sounds kind of like a selfish endeavor, but I do think that if it’s interesting to me, then it’ll be interesting to my audience.

Am I a Blogger Yet?

I suppose the quick answer to this question is, “Yes, I blog, therefore I am a blogger.” But I feel like there is something still lacking that keeps me from becoming a full-on Blogger. And I think I know what it is: an audience. To be fair, I have a wonderfully supportive audience in the cohort. However, it feels more like a…forced audience. Once this program is done, and I am in the real world of being an educator, there is no guarantee my forced audience will still be reading. I won’t be guaranteed an audience at all! But I have learned through this ongoing project that I have to be an audience to earn one. It’s kind of like networking, I suppose, making connections with bloggers and being a part of their learning network so that they will be a part of mine. It is something that I have found invaluable in reading the cohort’s blogs and other educators’ blogs: being part of and growing my own learning network, reading others’ viewpoints, picking up curriculum ideas here and there, finding out what’s on the minds of experienced teachers and ed reformers. I think my growth as a blogger has been and will continue to be contingent on this idea of a learning network.

Being in a learning network means I have to work to be an audience, but a little more than that. In the context of our program, we have been pushed to question and push each other in the cohort to consider alternative ideas. This is apparent in many of the comments we leave for each other. A little while ago I read a cohortmate’s blog post about her experience calling a student’s family. In my comment, I wanted to applaud her efforts to be sensitive to the family and encourage her to think about the positive, and hopefully lasting effects of her phone call: “Even though you only see yourself as an observer, it could help improve the relationship between the school and the family. Hopefully your call will make the family less apprehensive about talking to teachers!”

This person was then kind enough to reply to my thoughts, saying, “I do like your last thought about creating a safer place for conversation between parents and teachers. Language does seem to be a great barrier, one that I thought might not be the biggest problem but it is. Thank you futureteachergetsschooled.”

In another cohortmate’s blog post, where she discusses her ideas for incorporating technology in the classroom, I was pushed to think more deeply about this topic in the comment thread that came after my initial comment: “What would be lost from “traditional” teaching if we did more of that in the classroom? What more “real world” learning might be bought into the classroom?” (Blogger professorjvg). And in one of my own posts, a comment made by The Veritably Clean blog pushed me to ask myself if I agreed with his thoughts, and if not, why? My growth as a blogger has been pushed a little further by the comments and nudging of the cohort here in blog-land.

Looking at the past few months’ worth of blogs, the one I think shows my growth as a blogging educator was when I wrote about my ideas for what it means to a leader in education, and the development of my professional identity. Those ideas in that post had been ruminating in my head throughout this program and after that post, I was encouraged by the comments to write a follow-up post continuing the thoughts I had first addressed.

With this reflection, I am more aware of the ways in which having a web presence in this blog (and on Twitter) have had some bearing on my growth as an educator and how I want them to be a part of and help portray my professional voice and identity.