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Workshopping Yourself

ocsIf I ever write a book about teaching, I will write about the importance of being yourself in your classroom.  For some reason, I used to believe that it was not appropriate to be the real me as a teacher–maybe it was because I was fresh out of college, inspired by professors’ styles that were so very different from my own, or maybe it was because I was so young when I began–just 20 years old–that I felt I should try to put some distance between myself and my students.

Over the years, I’ve dropped the stern, strict, distant persona I tried initially to teach behind…and have just been myself.  I embrace my nerdiness, I’m loud all the time, I never stop smiling, and I don’t try to hide my enthusiasm for what I love (coffee, cats, my husband).  I’ve subscribed to the philosophy that I’m not just modeling reading strategies or writing processes for my students–I’m modeling a life philosophy too, of being oneself.  I have, essentially, workshopped myself…revising, paring down, adding in, and determining what to let alone in order to become the best possible version of Teacher Me.

Still, what I’m beginning to realize is that no matter what lesson plans I write down, what stories I choose to tell from my anecdotal arsenal, or even what clothes I put on in the morning, I’ll never have full control of how my students see me.  We never perceive ourselves the way our students perceive us…we never can.  I’m sure if I perused one of my old literary theory textbooks I could find a name for this phenomenon…but for now, we’ll just say that our students see right through us.  Right through the masks we wear when we’re having a bad day, through the halfhearted energy we try to muster if we’re ill, or through the moment’s hesitation it takes us to consider a diplomatic response to a particularly strange question or comment.  They see right through our sometimes-staged actions to our true beliefs, our values, and our feelings.  They see the real us, which is why I shake my head now at what a fake they must have thought I was during my first year of teaching.

Thanks to the fact that my students (current and former) write me lots of notes, I’ve gotten to do a little bit of research on exactly what they see.

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One thing that they all know is that I spend a lot of time reading and writing.  One student left me a note saying that she hoped I had a good weekend reading since I don’t own a TV.  Another student wrote in an exam response that he was shocked to see me at the gym on a Saturday night, “getting swole,” since he assumed teaching was my “entire life.”  Another student wrote that sometimes when he read books, the voice in his head was “a letdown” because it wasn’t as excited as mine when I read a passage for booktalks.

One of my most excitable learners, a foreign exchange student from Brazil, gave me a goodbye note on her last day of class.  It was a simple list of things she was thankful for, and its straightforwardness couldn’t have been more tearjerking.  She said “thank you” for…

  • being crazy for books
  • being patient about my questions
  • lending me books
  • being happy every day
  • accepting me with open arms
  • being honest
  • saying the things you say
  • being my teacher

There is nothing on that list, or in any of those notes, about becoming a better reader or writer–nothing there about increasing knowledge of domain-specific vocabulary, or learning how to make a strong claim and support it with evidence, or analyzing the development of a theme throughout an extended work.  And yet…that list, and those notes, made me feel like an amazing teacher.

The things our students take away from our classes don’t always have to do with what we write in our lesson plans. Sometimes they do, yes–but so often, the things we teach are so far outside of our content standards that we don’t even know how to name them…when we talk about modeling, we can’t forget that we are also ROLE models…thinking models, reading models, relationship models, fitness models, etc.  Our students absorb the lessons of these models incredibly quickly.  We are influential in ways that we may never intend to be.

In a recent letter from a former student, the following words brought tears to my eyes: “I really do appreciate your kind words and wise ones. If it’s not evident already, your one year in my life has taken the effect of many.”

I don’t know what exactly the effect I have had on that student is, or will be (which is a little bit terrifying, to be honest).  What I do know is that I’m thankful for the chance to affect kids every day in my classroom, and I think the workshop model is an excellent way to do that.  There are so many opportunities for meaningful dialogue in this structure, both between student and teacher and in small or large groups of learners.  As workshop participants, students AND teachers get to be themselves, and get to discover more about themselves (and each other) through talk about reading and writing.  There’s no pressure to conform–the whole POINT is to be yourself and do your own thing, and that right there is more than enough to motivate me to do the outside work the workshop requires.  So, I’ll wrap up this post–and get to the two-foot stack of grading next to me–by leaving you with the wise words of the always-original Oscar Wilde:

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3 thoughts on “Workshopping Yourself

  1. […] by Shana’s post, I have appropriated her title and shall use this post to tell you about how I have performed a […]

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  2. Amy January 12, 2014 at 1:58 pm Reply

    Shana, I love you, and I can only imagine how much joy your students see radiating through your joyfulness every day. I can just hear you singing! thank you for the reminder to be real. I struggle with letting my students see too much of the personal me. I never feel like I have a balance. I think mainly because I feel like we have so much to do…get to work. Do this and this and this. I rarely slow down and just talk about life. I need to do so much more of that. Thank you for this great post.

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  3. brainoflaura January 12, 2014 at 8:46 am Reply

    Love this!

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