I Believe (Part I of II)

Michelle Bulla, January 2019

With all the hoopla around renewals, revisions, and resolutions, I found myself looking back over my newest journal begun a few months ago. The first dated entry is from this past October, and it’s titled “Core Beliefs.” I’d been reading Penny Kittle & Kelly Gallagher’s latest book, 180 Days, and examining my own beliefs as the chaos of the school year began to settle down.

I find that many pedagogues are opening their work of late by addressing the idea of us – teachers – doing some soul searching prior to making decisions about not only what to teach, but how to teach, and I think it’s interesting that at the stage of my career I’m in – the start of the third decade (?!?) – I’m doing more thinking now about my educational philosophy than I think I did prior to beginning.

Back then, I had bright – and seemingly radical – ideas about making students the center of my work and ensuring that they were always pushing their thinking beyond any preconceived or paradigmatic boundaries. It was noble, looked good on my cover letters, and sounded even better in interviews. I’m not sure I knew precisely how to do that, or why I wanted that as an ideology, though I think even then I might have been nursing the dejection of often feeling invisible in my large university classes, and the smallness I had felt in high school as I tried to absorb as much new information as I could. Between the two, I wasn’t sure I had any idea how to make my own way in the world without a guide or teacher telling me what to think about, what to see, what to learn, and how to best show off my learning so I would hit the highest level possible in their unwritten set of expectations. I knew I didn’t want that for my students.

I didn’t realize until I was thigh-deep in my teaching career why no pre-packaged, company-bought set of lessons or projects or handouts or “borrowed” teaching ideas made me feel like I was doing good work. I didn’t know or realize that every time I looked past myself or the faces in front of me in my quest to be better, that I was already doomed to mediocrity. I didn’t have a clue that in the process of searching for the best ideas, I was conducting the greatest self-sabotage of all: silencing my own voice. And even saying that I don’t think I believed I had a voice to silence. I doubted myself, because I never knew to listen to my inner voice regarding what I should or could or ought to do to make my work more relevant, more meaningful, more profound, more impactful.

My saving graces were perhaps that I cared, a lot, and was always reflective; I was – and still am – that teacher who starts making her “next time” list around the end of November. I am nothing if not reflective by nature.

Somehow I missed the inspirational teaching material available (no one in my school was reading it and I was blinded by the struggle to get from one day to the next), and I was remembering material in the form of pure philosophical perspective and introspection – texts like Parker Palmer’s infamous The Courage to Teach – or shopping pre-packaged unit plans replete with everything one might (allegedly) need to teach a specific novel – vocabulary, do-now journal prompts, character analysis worksheets, symbolism handouts with outlined drawings of the symbol students would “color in” with their thoughts from the book, and of course, the 50 – 100 question objective tests. The better products included thematic and related topics to research or contemplate.

I’m not implying these materials were all bad. As I honed my skills, I found I could create a provocative class discussion with the materials, and with some creativity, make the activities collaborative and more engaging than they might readily appear to be. For a while, my teaching work revolved around just that, with a goal that for a long time never seemed to change (and was part of the problem, I now realize): (how to) get my students as excited to learn more about X text as I was.

In my quest to get my students excited, it never dawned on me that I was only going to get so far. I’d put up a barrier to true fulfillment because I was – for a long time – operating in the paradigm of not only all whole-class text reading (of a book I or the curriculum chose, of course), but also all whole-class discussions, activities, and assessments that were the same for every student.

Over time I began to change some things not because I read about great new theories or strategies or even because of a wonderful conference experience, though there were many of the latter which helped me stay fresh and excited about teaching in general, but because I began to get bored and frustrated. I was bored with reading a stack of mediocre essays (even with a stack of great ones!) because I was reading the same ideas over and over. I was bored with teaching multiple sections of the same course in a day because I was facilitating the same discussions over and over, trying desperately to make the students think they’d come up with the great insights that were, in fact, on my list of “must-knows” to absorb and learn, otherwise their time in this great text would have been wasted.

I grew frustrated with my students who didn’t all care about what I cared about. I was told I was doing good work – even great work, by some – and while I loved that work, I grew restless, frustrated that it began to seem like even though each group was new, I still had the goal for each group, each student, to walk away from each text knowing it and why it was so great, and maybe, with the ones I was lucky enough to really reach, to have them see themselves or the world in a more expansive way than before.

I was a good teacher. Maybe even a great one on some days, for some students. But I wasn’t feeling very connected to my overall impact.

I didn’t think I could identify when or where things started to shift for me, but something must have been brewing. When I became comfortable with a course I’d inherited where – within wide boundaries – I could create the curriculum, I began to make changes to my previously “perfect” syllabus. In retrospect, I think this liberty (and years of grateful students and parents for my previous work) enabled me to own my own skin as a teacher. I realized that I could experiment with how to reach and engage students and still have at least the same impact, if not a greater one.

The shifts came slowly at first. I spent more time on some poetry and less on others as chatter about close reading grew. I offered multiple writing prompts so as to reach more students and to not have to read a set of the same analyses paper after paper. I wove in more peer review and collaborative writing, and then later added on pre-submission annotations so those very same writers identified the writing moves they’d used and I could read not only their insights but watch their writing growth and know they were cognizant of it. I altered my final unit on women’s voices to be in the form of book clubs (though I didn’t use that title then), where in place of everyone reading The Awakening as a core text, students chose a title from a list I provided and tracked themes and symbols we met in short stories and poetry we read together instead.

One time I went into the book room to gather copies of the next novel and realized I didn’t have enough. I decided on the spot that each section would read a different title, with my teaching topics still conceptually transferring across texts. And then because the conversations were so rich for me across the three classes but not for my students, I decided the following year to offer students in each class their choice of the three titles to read in groups and for the second time then, waded my way through book clubs and small group discussions, hoping my students were as excited as I was, watching more of them speak up, reference the text, and share the journey from reading to revelation.

I didn’t have a fancy name for what I was doing then, but now books like 180 Days (Kittle & Gallagher, 2018), A Novel Approach (Kate Roberts, 2018), and Teaching Like Yourself (Gravity Goldberg, 2019) all tell parts of my story; they serve as thoughtful and useful guides for doing this work on your own or with others.

There have been massive improvements in materials for teachers, along with a shift in these publications. The books put out by the educational publishers now are talking not only about ideology, but also about how to make changes in the actual work of teaching. And over the last ten years or so, these publications and – by extension, appearances – by pedagogues all seemed to be clamoring about just what I had begun thinking about all those years ago: how to truly make our students the center of our work.

Today there are many people more brilliant than I codifying not only making our students the heart of our work, but also connecting ourselves deeply to the “whys” and the “core beliefs” we possess to then say, with confidence:
If A (belief), then B (strategy / text choice / methodology), paving the way for C (students’ voiced being raised in artistic fashion) to happen more authentically.

When students realize they’re raising their voices rather than replicating others’ in different words, they are empowered in the best way: they truly are at the center of our work, for sure, but more significantly, they’re the heart of it. My work becomes a quest to entangle their hearts through choice, so they own their own work and voices in precisely the way I had wanted to help them long ago to do.

I hope you’ll join me in 2019, reflecting on your practice and whys and core beliefs and when / where your teaching began to shift. Stay tuned for the second installment of this blog post where I’ll share my actual beliefs about my role as a teacher, about students learning, and about the goals I have for my students now.

Happy 2019, all! Cheers to a refreshed, renewed, and resolved YOU.

Comments

I had some significant delays in my teaching career. I am now, arriving here, in the last decade of my teaching in a rural school, doing the work I love and finally working on a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. For a long, long time I didn’t believe in myself as a teacher although those veteran teachers around me, my mentors and friends, did. For fourteen years I hit the pause button and raised my two now grown girls. I felt adrift as I went back to my first love, a teaching career, as my first marriage crumbled underneath my feet. Now I know that teaching was and is my purpose, and I believe that being aware of my students on multiple levels is necessary and practical on so many levels as a teacher. Life has many unexpected turns and rough roads in its journey, but let me say that being a believer in the student’s gifts, the student’s choices has transformed my last decade and my next decade of teaching. Thank you, Michelle Bulla, for helping solidify my voice with your own. ~ Shannon Courtney

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I Believe (Part II of II) • Michelle Bulla • February 2019

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