I Believe (Part II of II)
Michelle Bulla, February 2019
In my previous post – Part I of this two-part blog – I wrote about how my teaching has evolved over the years. Specifically, the changes I explored had to do with how I came to experiment with ways to make my students the heart of my teaching. I found myself incorporating students making more choices; these choices came in the form of texts, discussion topics, and writing topics. Their choices are the basis of their reading and thinking and writing in my classes now.
At the end of the year, my students will often write to me that they had more freedom in my class than they’d ever had before. And that they had no idea what to do with it. They also reported that at first, and for some for a long time, they struggled tremendously with that quandary. As seniors, some are metacognitive enough to realize that despite freedom being precisely what they want most in the world, they are frozen in fear at the face of it. However, they seldom openly ask the questions I know that most are thinking. Instead, they’ll ask in private: “What if I make the “wrong” choice? What if my ideas are not “right?” What if I miss something? What if what I think is not what others think?” And the most dreaded one, the one that reveals their belief that I, like “all teachers,” have a hidden agenda for what an “A” constitutes and they need to figure it out to learn how to “play” in my class: “But what do you want?”
These questions trouble me, and while one might think acknowledgements of my openness, I actually find myself quite distressed upon reading such comments. Why are students hamstrung by teacher expectations? What are teachers doing / not doing to expand students’ thinking ability? Why must the “right” answers always come from the teachers or from the internet? What kind of an environment has been created to foster such paralysis of independent thought?
To be clear, I am not blaming teachers who have never been exposed to more student-centric approaches, or who work in environments where the curricular expectations are so rigid as to foster an attitude of compliance and adherence rather than individual thought and reflection, either on the part of the teacher or the students. But, once teachers have gotten themselves oriented to the work, teachers need to be lifelong learners and that includes learning more about their own work and how others might be doing it. We need teachers to be professionals, to engage in our profession – as other professionals in other fields do. I hope teachers will not only look to grow, but also work that growth into an evolution in their teaching work – improving methods, materials, protocols, expectations, etc. And it’s so easy to grow now! There are many people publishing and making video tutorials and appearing at conferences and writing about the impact of the research in the field. Several have appeared at the annual NYSEC conference in recent years – Kylene Beers, Jeffrey Wilhelm, Penny Kittle, Laura Robb, Alfred Tatum, Pam Allyn, Linda Reif,…to name just a few! While we always battle against the commodity of time, growth can still happen if we make it a priority for ourselves just as we do for our students.
Growth is at the heart of my beliefs about my role as a teacher, about students learning, and about the goals I have for my students.
Here’s a philosophy of teaching I put together a few years ago that begins to illustrate my beliefs. I find it fascinating that I used the term “core beliefs,” not having realized how many pedagogical texts would come to use the term in the ensuing years:
Philosophy of Teaching: These are my values and core beliefs, regardless of who the students are:
• All students deserve dedicated and qualified teachers who care about their academic, psychological, and emotional wellness.
• Excellent teachers continually seek to improve, enhance, hone, and better their knowledge, craft, and contribution to the good of the organization that supports them in their work.
• Excellent teachers make learning and demonstrations of learning authentic and applicable to realms larger than specific lessons / content areas.
• Students need to learn about themselves and the world around them most and first of all; then, they should desire and be able to engage in that world, adding and contributing to furthering it as a productive and responsive world that enables success and progress for all.
• Students need to be met where they are, and held to expectations that exceed any paradigm from whence they come.
• All students deserve and benefit from attention, 1-1 interactions, positive and constructive feedback, fun and challenging learning experiences.
• Students should be at the center of classroom experiences, asked to direct their own learning when and where they are ready to do so.
• Learning environments should be rigorous, complex, realistic, and conducive to profound thinking, reflection, learning, and production by all participants, teachers and students included.
These bullets address my views of my role as a teacher. And yet, as I look this over, I realize that the reflective work I have done over the last few years has been largely centered on one thing that is not noted here, but which is the crux of this philosophy and every decision I make relative to curriculum and instruction: I teach because voices matter. Thus, I believe my job is to help students cultivate their voices in the classroom, in their comprehension of reading, in their writing, and in their lives. This means I must teach them how to listen to other voices – in texts of all types and in discussions and in life, and work with integrity and fidelity to the task of practicing, using, and honing their own.
In Gravity Goldberg’s latest book, Teach Like Yourself (Corwin, 2019), she discusses the process of identifying one’s core beliefs as needing to “start with why.” In other words, Goldberg prompts, “Why do you teach?” and identifies the answer to that question as one’s “why” for teaching.
After some of the activities in her book, I arrived at this list of core beliefs about teaching and learning that connect my “why” – voices matter – with my thinking about learning:
• Every student voice matters.
• My job is to cultivate confidence in the expression of those voices.
• Confidence leads to competence and volume.
• Choice leads to exercising voice, and voice leads to exercising choice. This work is about developing agency.
• The vibe matters – community and collaboration matter for creativity (otherwise fear of failure, ostracism, shame overpower the tendency for agency).
• Students have much to offer / bring to a discussion, to understanding and to (re)creating the world.
• Open minds both reflect and lead to a growth mindset.
• True growth happens when we’re uncomfortable intellectually or physically.
• Learning is forever, and is a practice that takes time, repetition, hard work, and compassion for self.
I’m pretty happy with these lists, though if I know anything about myself, I know that they too will evolve in time. Most importantly though, these lists lead to identifying some practices that I don’t and must not do as a teacher:
• Give my opinion on a text at any time. I specifically avoid:
• Naming themes
• Identifying significant events or issues or quotes as the focus of a lesson
• Making declarative statements about meaning in a text
• Facilitating discussions where all responses are directed to me for review / commentary
• Giving objective quizzes or tests
• Giving assignments / writing prompts that are prescriptive or singularly focused
• Give feedback that is judgmental. Specifically, this means I will:
• Comment on how claims are supported and explained, vs. judge the claims themselves
• Allow revisions with reflections to reinforce growth over grades
• Choose all texts
• Have a set mindset for what a text means
• Elevate one text over another (I.e., “Everyone must read this book.”) A colleague asked me, “Don’t we do this implicitly when we use whole-class texts?” It’s a great question. When introducing a whole-class text, tell students that this whole class book is only ONE example of ___…that there are a zillion I could choose and they can later choose out there…but that we’ll look at one together as an introduction to / illustration of ___. And, with my classroom library at hand, I pull out other texts that also illustrate the concepts for further / additional reading.
As I make this philosophy come alive, here are some things I work to do in my teaching:
• Make students do the heavy lifting of thinking, research, synthesizing, evaluating, and creating in learning
• Give choice for some texts, and choice for all written assignments
• i.e., I would no longer give students a writing assignment looking like this: “Kafka’s The Metamorphosis shows us the perils of isolation. In an essay, discuss the topic of isolation in Kafka’s work, using three pieces of textual evidence to prove your claim.”
• My assignments now are more like this for Kafka’s novella:
• Part I: “Write your thoughts about Kafka’s work – what does it mean to you? What stands out and why?” When students are flummoxed by the openness of these prompt questions, I help/stymy them further by adding questions I will ask them at every turn: “What do you feel Kafka is saying about life / human behavior / society? Why? How do you know?”
• Part II: “Choose an essay by a literary critic to read and summarize in a precis.”
• Part III: “In an essay, synthesize the comments of the critic with your original reader response. Note the impact of the critic’s work on your own thinking, discussing how that thinking has/has not evolved. You may include some of the topics we have learned about since your initial response as you articulate what you feel is a meaning of Kafka’s work (existentialism, literature of the absurd, surrealism, Freud’s psychodynamic theory concepts of the id, ego, and superego).”
• Listen to feedback, and offer compliments
• Let students take the lead in discussions (I find the Harkness method fabulous as an instructive and reflective tool for this)
• Show wonder and ask questions that provoke deep thinking (I.e., “What makes you think that? How might your thinking be reflective of your learning? Where do you think this text might go on that topic and why?”)
• Acknowledge individual student thinking and risk-taking
I know there is likely more I might say and think on this topic, and I’m sure you can contribute, too. For now though, I’m really happy with the focus that I have identified for my “why” – cultivating student voice – and how that is manifested in the way I approach my work every day.
Student work and testimonials are, for me, the most compelling evidence of any ideology. Since reading before and after student papers would take up too much space here, I’ve included some feedback from recent students instead that speaks to the openness and freedom I try to cultivate:
• “My shyness prevented this, therefore I’m very thankful to have assignments like this. I don’t think you know it but you impacted my life more than any teacher has. Your open minded projects allowed to me really get to know myself.. And as deep as this may sound I would never of known the person I want to be if it was not for you. I learned so many new and amazing things this year in both an academic and personal way. I have never sat in a class like this.. But boy am I thankful I did. Your big heart and always willing to learn mind has shaped me into a person who desires the same things.”
• “I have never been pushed so hard to hear my own voice, to use my own voice, and to hear others’ voices with an open and accepting mind.”
• “You have opened my mind to the plethora of different perspectives. Sometimes I can’t stand it but I am willing to understand what is going through someone’s mind about an issue especially if our ideologies oppose. Anyway I just love how you strive to to make us more informed of our society and that you yourself. Honestly just thank you for the experience and your joyous personality. I really strive to be as open minded as you and I hope that you continue to put students outside of their comfort zones because it may lead to something great. And I am glad you put me outside of my comfort zone.”
• “I’ve never had an English class like this before, and I mean that in the best way possible. You’ve opened my eyes to a whole world of knowledge, and you’ve pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me things I didn’t think I would ever be capable of knowing and understanding. At times, I’ll admit, I lost motivation and simply didn’t see the point to the work, but looking back on it now, I’m very grateful to everything you’ve given us. You’ve encouraged me to share darker, emotional parts of myself with other people, something that I never would’ve thought of doing before this year.”
• “Thank you so much for teaching me not only about literature, but life in general as well. I used to have a really rigid style of writing and often had a hard time writing fluidly before your class, and now I can write essays off my head naturally. I’m starting to read and write more on my own time because of you. I’m also starting to take an interest in poetry again.”
• “Thank you so much for this year, Mrs. Bulla. You really helped me grow as a writer, reader, and most of all, a thinker. You’re a teacher who truly helped me prepare for life after high school. I will consider what you taught me about writing and literature for years to come.”
• “Thank you for all the advice you have given me, allowing me to be truly candid in my writing, and most of all for your constant encouragement to push ourselves. I have grow not only as a writer, but as a person.”
What’s your why? How does that inform your core beliefs? How are those a reflection of your approach your work as a teacher? To your thinking about student learning?
Join me in a reflective revolution! How has your teaching evolved? How is this a reflection of your core beliefs? Post your stories below, and consider writing for this blog with your thoughts.
I love the lists! I think every teacher should reflect upon and craft such lists—and then write them out in sand. As we grow, these lists should shift and evolve. But there should be at least one or two items that never change—like “the vibe matters.”