A few posts back, I quoted several brilliant speakers from NCTE in The Joy and Power of Reading session I attended with Amy and Shana. I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to hear such well known and powerful educators and writers speak in person before, and I sat (once I got over my fangirl fawning) in awe at their brilliance and passion.
Kwame Alexander stuck with me very specifically.
I recognized his name from his popular book The Crossover, but it was his quick smile (that goes all the way to his eyes – a sign of sincerity of character, I’ve been told) that kept my eyes sliding back over to watch him think and wait for him to slip in another insight that should be immediately printed on an inspirational poster for every classroom and dentist’s waiting room in America.
In his cozy green scarf and olive colored jacket, he just looked like poetry personified. A man whose worldly experiences are outshone only by his worldly ambitions. A man you want to have a cup of coffee with, just to sit and sip and feel smarter by proximity. A man who, in his own words, knows the value of helping students to “become more human.”
So, in the weeks since the conference, I’ve been working that “more human” perspective over in my mind. It’s led me to some pretty serious reflection about what I used to “do to” kids.
Never in my career have I strayed from the answer that I teach “because of the kids.” They are the reason I can’t comprehend ever leaving the classroom. They are the reason I stayed in the profession, when early on, I wasn’t sure it was where or who I really wanted to be.
Yet, I too have gone through years, weeks, units, lessons, where I got down on myself for not “getting through.” Whether it be through the content or through to their long term memories. In both cases I ended up feeling constantly behind. Chasing my lesson plan book across each week, racing toward an assessment or final exam time. (To be honest, I don’t know why I was in such a hurry…the scantron machine used to give me nightmares. Listen to all those beeps! They haven’t learned ANYTH…Oh. Wait. I messed up the key. Great.)
And, while that stress is still very real in some necessary instances (not the scantron stress, thankfully…I’ve moved well beyond that special form of educational torture), for the most part, I save my energy. My colleagues and I are working to provide opportunities each and every day for our students to grow as learners and skill-wielding consumers of information. Each class period is like a buffet of literacy with reading, writing, speaking, listening, collaborating, self-reflecting, and problem solving on the menu almost daily. We, as teachers, are working hard to root all of our foundational work in the standards, and therefore the assessment of those standards, but if that were our only focus, we could (and for some, probably would) easily teach the way that we used to.
But workshop returns students to that foundational level too and makes them co-planners. Choice puts students back in on that ground floor in order to let their voices speak their discovered truths instead of only those of their teachers. We’re not just sending students to the bookshelves and waiting for the class to start collectively singing kumbaya, but we are encouraging them to reinvest in their own learning through some much needed validation of their interests.
Basically the divide between the traditional of what I used to plan and the recent effort to balance it with workshop, stems from the question:
How can I focus on helping my students become more human, if I’m wrapped up in only my own plans for their education?
It’s a delicate balance, for sure. We have mandated tests, the necessity for a well-versed and inquisitive electorate, our desire to just get students actually reading, and countless other seemingly contradictory notions that fly around our profession. But when faced with the uncertainty that is every single day in our classrooms, the undeniable need to encourage, model for, and then trust our students as readers and writers is the only way to make real progress, in my opinion.
Yes, we (the teachers) are learning too. The accountability piece is occasionally far too optimistic to be effective. The right ways and times and books to help our students challenge themselves aren’t always readily obvious or available. Reading goals are made and consistently broken in the name of “I had other stuff to do,” and if I could get in an extra four hours or so of prep everyday, I might feel prepared…ever. But this is the way of it. This is what growth looks like it’s messy and scary and stressful and totally, completely, unquestionably, worth it. Our students depend on us to facilitate learning. That doesn’t mean we need to or get to dictate every facet of that learning at their expense.
In that regard, Alexander also said that day that, “we [educators] have to be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope.” In my opinion, the way we do that is to work not only for our students, but more closely with them as well. That means exploring mentor texts and connecting the author’s craft moves to students’ independent novels. It means taking time to conference with students both during reading and workshop time, and also providing feedback on low stakes writing throughout a unit. It means encouraging kids to talk, and reminding ourselves to listen. It has to also mean providing materials for students to see themselves in the written and printed word, because students are more human when we recognize the many facets of their humanity.
I want to give my students hope by handing them mirrors and pens at the same time. I want to manufacture hope through encouragement of students’ growing talents and fuel that development with repeated exposure to challenging and engaging prose, poems, arguments, and drama.
In an interview with NPR back in April, Alexander also said, “I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to worry or wonder or hope that things are going to get better. I spend a lot of time making things better.”
Our students live in a scary, dangerous, often depressing world. Our classrooms can be, and arguably need to be, safe places where our kids feel secure enough to explore, question, challenge, and deepen their thinking, not just to answer the questions I ask, but answer the questions they have.
We work everyday, as Alexander says, to “make things better.” As I said last week, skill development is my professional responsibility and human development is my personal responsibility. We’re all in the business of developing humans, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s an exciting and daunting task. It’s also an impressive responsibility. I love knowing I’m not alone in embracing that responsibility. You’re all right there with me.
Mr. Alexander, I’d like to hug you if you’re up for it. You are truly an incredibly inspiring human.
Which thoughts of great educators are guiding you right now? What’s making you reflect on our practice? Please comment below!