Destination: Innovation

Like many of the positive people in my PLN (Personal Learning Network), I am becoming excited about transforming many of my teaching and assessment methods. When I cruise my Twitter feed and click on teachers’ blog posts to read about methods of gaining student engagement, or ways of incorporating technology and choice into lessons, I mentally connect to my own students and curriculum and see that, yes, I can do that, with a few adjustments.

In the last week I read a couple of blog posts from teachers reminiscing about their start in teaching and their journey to this new place where constant innovation is not fixing something that is broken, but constantly learning and improving their system. Why are their systems good? Because they recognize the value of being a constant learner and modeling that for students.

This place of innovation that many teachers have come to, like any destination, is reached from many starting points. Many teachers will be familiar with Garnet Hillman’s description of the beginning teacher, fresh from a school of education, with a well-taught protocol ready to take on her job as outlined in her education classes. And she did so with great success for several years, but felt something missing. That is when she began to innovate.

I, myself, came to my teaching job from a different approach. I am alternatively certified. Having gone to college as an adult (husband, household and three active sons), I earned an English degree with a journalism minor, but not in education. Like many English majors, I wanted to write. But along the way, I got involved in the campus newspaper and as I moved up in rank, found myself teaching new staffers. So it was at the end of my schooling that I decided I wanted to teach, took an introduction class that included 10 hours of observation, and that was all I had in the classroom before I was in one of my own.

When I got my dream job, advising the newspaper and yearbook at my own alma mater, I was ecstatic – and scared to death. The position included teaching English. I was given a copy of freshman English lesson plans, the teacher edition of the texts and an awesome mentor who I abused weekly with questions. I learned about bell ringers from the margins of the teacher text. I loved teaching literature, reading aloud and discussing the stories, but as for the grammar, I had to stay a lesson or two ahead of them. I finally learned what participles were because I had to teach them. I’m not even kidding. I have always felt like an impostor, like I needed to get this gig figured out. Every summer I have tried to reinvent myself as a teacher.

The thing is, most of the advice I see being offered by knowledgeable educators of my PLN, I seem to have stumbled into naturally.

Get to know them. It was on the lesson plans I was given. Write an ‘introduce yourself’ paper. The exercise was about assessing their writing strengths and getting to know them. I was amazed at what these kids would tell me about themselves, about their families. This gave me the insight I needed to help assess skills, to get to know who they were, what they needed.

Let them see you make mistakes. Well, that was easy enough. I made mistakes and couldn’t really hide the fact. They corrected me if I misspelled something on the board. I thanked them. They corrected me if I mispronounced a word in reading aloud or got characters’ names reversed. We laughed it off, and I told them everyone makes mistakes. They became more comfortable in making mistakes.

Model what you want them to do. One of the first things I did was write a grant for a projector I could connect to my laptop. My favorite professor taught us to write news stories by this method, and I found it so helpful. He typed what we offered as he explained what should come next. We watched the process on the screen. When I want them to write something newish, we do it together on the first run as I explain the reasoning and the options.

There were many things I did that did not work well. I blame not having gone through an education program, although most teachers I confess this to tell me you don’t really learn anything there. You learn it by being in the classroom. Chief among those is that all students are different and have to be reached and assessed in different ways. While I knew this in a surface kind of way, the meaning of it is more apparent every year. The early experiences of another teacher in my PLN, Starr Sackstein, rang true for me as well. Students differ, not only within your classroom, but from district to district as well.

When I was young, I begged my brother to play school with me. He would relent for the small price of my playing Army men with him later. To me, playing school was worksheets I made up, my telling him what to do and him doing it. That was my own learning experience, therefore that was how it was done. Sure, as an adult, I knew there was more to it, but even the simple act of creating a test proved to be a bit tricky when students interpreted a question in a way I did not intend or foresee.

I’ve come to almost despise tests, in part because students see them as the end product. I want the learning, the knowledge or the project that demonstrates knowledge to be the end product. There is more excitement, more joy in that, and there should be joy in learning.

The proof of this is seen in comparing my production classes to my English classes.

Production class end product: a newspaper or a yearbook. Joy level: 9 or 10. In an end of year reflection assignment, one staffer told me, “this is the only class I actually do work in.”

English class end product: a semester cumulative final. Joy level: 3 or 4. Most didn’t study, didn’t do all that well. Of two classes, only two or three students took the returned papers and binders home with them. There was nothing to be proud of.

It’s not that I didn’t introduce projects to my English classes – I did. But I need to examine the differences, see what makes one work and the other not so much.

I reflect so much over the summer, some days only over the things that didn’t work, that need fixing. But occasionally, I find myself dwelling on the reason I can’t get grading done right after school: because several students come in to hang out before their rides show up. Or that one student whose mom demanded a note from me that her daughter had caught up on her missing assignments. I wrote the note and added what a fantastic writer she was and how it didn’t take much time at all for her to catch up because she’d been paying such close attention to the novel. The girl gave me a huge hug the next day. There are the students who graduated two, three, even four years ago who still stop by and visit, hit me up on Facebook to share their accomplishments. These accomplishments often have to do with what they learned in my classes. I know I’m getting some things right.

As I work on reinventing myself yet again, I need to keep in mind that I’m not so much fixing something that is broken as I am improving on a good system.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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