Category Archives: Pedagogical Ponderings

Learning in listening.

Since my first formal observation, I have been actively working to navigate/negotiate my position of authority with my students—establishing my authority in the classroom was one of my goals established during our debrief. I have found my small reading groups to be a great space for exploring/experimenting with this practice (there are two groups I am consistently planning/facilitating, one in English and one in Spanish). While this is definitely still one of my greatest challenges, I feel like I am making strong improvements in balancing my natural desire to be fun/goofy with the kids vs. setting/modeling clear expectations for engaged learning and behavior.

Even still, this has been an extra challenge with a few students.

A couple of weeks ago, I made it a point to play with these particular students at recess, show them that I genuinely care about and want to listen to them. Over the few following days, this seemed to make a world of difference. Nothing else significant had changed in our routines or interactions, yet these students (who previously were the hardest for me to engage) demonstrated a level of respect for me in small group that I had not experienced before. I was blown away! I don’t necessarily expect this change to be permanent, but I do feel like I am developing strategies to help me sustain this mutual respect with my students.

Authoritative discipline is not the only way to demand respect, and it is not the way that I want to demand respect from my students. When I do, the response from my students does not feel authentic, and I feel worn down and discomforted with my practice. I am finding that when I really take the time to listen to my students, and demonstrate that I am deeply listening, they tend to listen to me in response, within class and without. I am also finding that I tend to do the same with my own teachers too. When I feel like I am truly listened to by my teacher, I am more motivated to listen to them in return. In so many ways, what motivates our behavior as adults may not be all that different than what motivates our kids behavior in the classroom….


Learning in struggle.

This past week, I had my first formal observation. It did not go so well….

I had spent hours planning an original science and math lesson about organic and non-organic produce for our first graders. We collected data from a blind taste taste to see if we preferred an organic or non-organic Fuji apple, and the next day we organized our data into picture graphs to help us make comparisons of our data and draw evidence-based conclusions.

My observation was on a Wednesday afternoon. However, I had not been in class for that entire week. Although we were still at school, we were participating in a GLAD training, so the kids had been with a substitute teacher all week. Then I pop in briefly for one lesson. The kids were really excited to see their teacher and myself back in the classroom. So excited that when it came time to create our picture graphs, many of them felt it was much more fun to dance and play around than actually pay attention and engage in the activity I had planned. I didn’t know what to do. I had led lessons before, and the strategies I had previously used to maintain focus and engagement had really worked. This time, they failed, quite miserably.

This experience taught me three things in particular:

  1. The context of an evaluation can be a very important factor in assessing one’s performance. When I evaluate my students, I need to give them the respect they deserve by taking this into account.
  2. Man, do I have a lot to learn about managing 24 kids, all at the same time. It is a lot easier to sit to the side with a notepad and theorize about my practice than it is to actually jump in and practice it.
  3. I am not a natural disciplinarian, nor do I feel a desire to learn skills/strategies of authoritative discipline. This part of our practice is going to be a major struggle for me.

Although this observation did not go as well as I had hoped, it was a really valuable learning opportunity. Hopefully it will become a marker of “strong improvement” in the future :]

Learning in play.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.
—O. Fred Donaldson
Contemporary American martial arts master

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
—Diane Ackerman
Contemporary American author

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.
—Abraham Maslow
American psychologist, 1908–1970

As a young learner, I loved being in the Classroom. I found so much joy in learning, and knew that this was the site of exploration and discovery (or perhaps more importantly a place/space of validation and encouragement from my educators). Now that I am a teacher-in-training, my love for classroom spaces persists. Yet my favorite time of the school day has become Recess.

Every morning, I go out to Recess with the primary classes in my student teaching placement. There are so many benefits of this daily practice. The opportunity to go outside, run around, get some exercise; the ability to observe my students in  more unstructured social situations/settings; the act of directly modeling for my students a transition from “class time” to “play time” and back again; the critical moments of intervening in conflict, facilitating conversation/reconciliation, inviting a lonely child to play too. I am still processing and exploring what advantages and opportunities can come from participating in Recess. At this point, I believe the most valuable product of this practice has been the effect that play has had on my relationships with my students. Spending even just fifteen minutes a day playing with the kids—smiling and laughing, creating new games together, simply being goofy—has opened up and (radically) transformed many of our student-teacher dialogues and dynamics, both in the classroom and without. Our play seems to have cultivated a sense of mutual respect, confidence, comfort/safety, and (most importantly) trust.

Play is the heart of a (or at least my) Pedagogy of Belonging. I strongly believe that all teachers can benefit from going/coming out to Recess. Not as a monitor on “Recess Duty,” but as a co-participant in the creative and collective play that goes on. I am eager to experience the continuing transformation and transgression this practice permits/provides.

Learning in Multiple Perspectives.

How people are represented is how they are treated.

—Stuart Hall

How do we represent Others and their world[s] for just purposes?

—Soyini Madison

Learning in many stories.

The single story creates stereotypes.
And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie, Storyteller

Learning in vulnerability.

Stories are data with a soul.

—Brené Brown, Researcher-Storyteller

Learning in poetry.

Equity / Justice Mission.
Where is the action?

Why Anti-Bias?
Out of integration, a
new bias is born.

Empathy is key
to building community
and transforming it.

Respond quickly to
discomfort. That moment makes
all the difference.

Poems are hidden
beneath / between / before us,
waiting to be found.

To Mr. Hermit,
hiding amongst books and desks:
Come out! See the world!

Oh distant student,
How do I show you I care?
I just keep smiling.

I won’t forget you,
my people in the margins.
In you, our hope grows.

Is Delinquency
a symptom of a need for
a Classroom that cares?

My project is to
inspire the Creators
within everyone.

Teaching is Advocating.

In our literacy course, I have been working with a first grade student who is an English Language Learner. She speaks primarily Spanish at home, and this is only her second year in an English-only environment. Before meeting her, I was told that she is a very struggling reader. In fact, literacy was becoming such a challenge for her that her teacher has been considering referring her for Special Education services, which would only be appropriate if she has a learning disability. I was eager to work with this student and see what I could uncover about her literacy development and abilities.

Our first meeting was a couple of weeks ago. As she started to read her “just right” books, which were short simple-predictable texts, I realized she was not paying any attention to the print. All of her interpretations and meaning were drawn directly from the images. My efforts to engage her with the print were unsuccessful. Then we read the book Siete Ratones Ciegos (Seven Blind Mice) by Ed Young, which is a pretty complex story for a first grader to follow. She was super excited to read a book with me in Spanish, and was really engaged from the start. As we read, I asked her at various points to retell the story, discuss/analyze particular events, predict what would happen next. Her responses blew me away. Not only could she completely understand the story and retell it with total accuracy, but she made thoughtful, detailed predictions, mostly in Spanish. By the end, she identified the main points of the story and retold her favorite parts. Then we read Sneetches by Dr. Suess, an even more complex text, this time in English. Again, she could comprehend the entire story, analyze what I had read in connection to pictures, and make detailed (and shockingly accurate) predictions about the story. She has never read Sneetches, or any other story by Dr. Suess. This one thirty-minute interaction completely destabilized the assumption/suspicion that her literacy struggles are due to a learning disability.

During our second meeting, we created our own I See book. It started with “My name is ___ and I see many things. / Mi nombre es ___ y yo veo muchas cosas.” Each following page repeated “I see ___. / Yo veo ___.” in English and Spanish, followed by the name of an animal that matches a picture for her to draw. For example, one page said “I see a cat. / Yo veo un gato.” By the end, she was reading both the English and Spanish accurately. Her confidence was heartwarming—when we returned to her classroom, the first thing she did was run up to her teacher to read the story we created together (again with near total accuracy). She can read! ¡Ella puede leer!

This experience has led me to realize how important our role as Advocates can be. Without someone to talk with this student in her native language and to discover her incredible ability to comprehend very complex texts, it would be very easy to assume that she has a learning disability. Without someone to tell her how cool it is that she can speak and read and write in two languages—to validate her bilingualism, her culture, her native language—it would be easy for her to view herself negatively in relation to her peers. As an Advocate for our students, we must ensure a growth mindset, both in the perceptions others (colleagues, parents, peers…) hold/carry of our students, and in the perceptions our students hold/carry of themselves.

Teaching is Poetic.

Last week, I witnessed a middle school Veteran’s Day Assembly. One of the guest speakers was a young man who had just returned home (only days before) from Air Force service in Afghanistan. He talked about the importance of travel, the value of trying new/challenging things, the danger of making “bad choices” that distance us from our goals, and how in order to reach our goals we must actively work towards them (basically, mom+dad are not going to take care of you forever, jobs will not show up at your doorstep, relationships do not take care of themselves). His speech covered a lot of essential themes that are relevant to this age group. Yet, despite all of these big ideas, one (seemingly minor, easily forgettable) detail really stuck out to me. As he described his educational history, he explained how we do not need to be good at everything to succeed. At first I was drawn to this idea—I have witnessed so much pressure for Students to be good, to be the best, to get all As, to excel in every subject. Why must every student be so competitive, self-critical, infinitely ambitious in every content area? How often do all Students get time to feel like they get it, understand, are successful? Then he used the example of a poem he wrote in 5th grade, titled (with pseudonym) My Name is Adam Brown and I Like to Kick Rocks. I thought this was a fantastic concept for a poem, and hoped he was going to read it aloud to everyone! However, much to my disappointment, the purpose of this example was to show that he “sucks at poetry,” hates poetry, is “not good at poetry.” Apparently his 5th grade teacher agreed that his poetry writing was not up to Standard, was not good enough. His message was that despite being “bad at poetry,” he is still successful. And still thinks he is not a Poet.

This story was very troubling to me. I believe everyone has a Poet inside of them—sometimes hiding, always there. It is sad to me that this man has been conditioned to believe he cannot write poetry. It is even more sad that his Teacher was not able to recognize the poetic beauty and potential of his “simple” concept of kicking a rock down the road. What a rad image and story! Yet instead of capitalizing on the potential poetic creativity and confidence this story could unleash, this Teacher chose to build the (traumatic) foundation for a hatred of poetry. Rather than unleashing the Poet within, this Teacher chased the Poet into hiding, far deeper inside. This mindset becomes a psycho-social virus; now, as he speaks to hundreds of middle school students, he is validated/transmitting this same mindset to (many) others. What a dangerous virus/parasite of the soul.

Recently I have become inspired by the poem A Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye. This poem is very accessible. For those that already love poetry, this asks Poets to recognize the poetic potential of everyday life as it passes us by, as we walk through it, in the places we least expect it to flourish. For those that do not yet love poetry, this provides exposure to a poem that can be grasped, understood, applied. It opens up a conversation about what counts as poetry (everything/anything!), and offers a model of creativity+beauty in unexpected places. Could poetry like this help a Teacher shape the conditions of possibility to re-direct/explode Students’ poetic lenses, to re-enchant their perceptions of everyday life? To be active and critical investigators/observers/surveyors/purveyors of the world(s) around them?

Over the past month, I have felt more and more drawn to the adolescent age groups. I strongly believe I want to teach middle-level humanities. My goal is to unleash the Creator within all of my Students. If I am successful, every Student will know they are a creative Writer, a critical Reader, and (perhaps most importantly) a Poet.

Teaching is Improvisation.

Last week, I spent the day in the middle school language arts classroom of one of my favorite childhood teachers. His philosophy and pedagogy are so incredibly well-designed and adapted to this challenging and fascinating (and so often misunderstood) adolescent age group. I was eager to return to his classroom and learn from his practice.

During the last class period of the day, I witnessed an incredible act of improvisation, of a teacher acting quickly on his feet. As an entry point to reading the poem Guilt by Jed Chambers, he asked the students to remember a time when they felt pressured to do something that didn’t “jibe” with their moral code, and respond in their journal (which he does not read) to prompts regarding how they felt, what they did, and what they wish they had done. He then asked students, who were willing, to share their story and self-analysis. Students brought up a wide range of experiences, from drug/alcohol related situations with friends to coaches directing them to hurt players on another team. It became obvious to me how safe these students feel within this learning space and community.
Then one of the students in the front row told a story about an experience he had with racism. He was a White boy, and he spoke about a basketball game, when a boy on the other team was making negative derogatory racist statements about a Black boy on his team. A few of the kids in the back of the class started to laugh. Their teacher immediately stopped the conversation, interrupted the story. “I’m sorry, did I miss something funny?” The whole class was silent, those that laughed looked terrified as they had been called out by a man they respected and admired. He immediately said, “I am not angry, I’m not saying this from a position of anger. I’m just wondering if I missed something funny. Our friend here is telling his story very articulately and elegantly, and he has not used any inappropriate words. So I’m just wondering if I am missing something?” The students all shook their heads, “No.” His tone immediately shifted to a calm and assuring stance. “Ahh, okay. So we are laughing because we are uncomfortable. And that is okay! That is a normal reaction. We as humans often laugh when we feel uncomfortable, and racism can sometimes be an uncomfortable topic for us to talk about. Alright, let’s get back to the story.” Every student was now serious and engaged as they listened to the boy in the front row tell the rest of his story, and they could all participate in a respectful, critical, academic, analytic approach to this incident of racism.
What an incredible act of improvisation! I have no idea how I would have responded in this situation, yet seeing this veteran teacher respond immediately with such grace gave me a valuable story to add to my toolbox. He was able to address discomfort, validate everyone’s feelings/reactions, and re-direct every student back to a serious conversation. No one was punished, everyone was enabled/empowered to participate. All in less than a minute! I am terrified and thrilled for teaching and management moments like this to come up in my own eventual classroom. Witnessing these fleeting moments has provided some of the most valuable lessons to me as a teacher in training.