What We Teach vs. How We Teach

We all struggle constantly to find balance in our classroom.  The demands of our students, our workplaces, our curricula, our standards, our colleagues, and ourselves are all but impossible to manage.

Generally, as a teacher, when I struggled with that balancing act, it looked something like this:


Yeah.  It wasn’t pretty.

Although I’ll probably never manage the perfect balance, I think I’ve edged a little closer to some sort of evenness through the process of tweaking, refining, revising, and rethinking how and what I teach.

I primarily do this by considering all things through the lens, first, of who I teach.

But I don’t think it’s enough to just say, hey, I know my students really well through lots of conferring and they know my expectations really well through lots of modeling and boom! learning occurs!

I think it’s really important to consider how and what we teach, too.

As a new teacher, I spent AGES pondering what I’d teach.  I was manic about designing thematic units, creating a complicated web I’d fill in before I introduced each central text, whether read or written.  I’d make sure I had some contemporary stuff and some old stuff, some poetry and some music, some fiction and some nonfiction.

My units were full of variety, that was for sure, but they all centered on classic books and pretty classic compositions, too–The Catcher in the Rye, a literary analysis; A Separate Peace, an argument essay.  I didn’t understand why students weren’t engaging with what I was teaching.  I mean, it was awesome!

Then I happened upon Alfie Kohn’s excellent article in Education Week, It’s Not What We Teach, It’s What They Learn.  I felt a little stupid, as I often do when I read Kohn’s matter-of-fact words–I picture him saying, duh, Shana. What you’re teaching doesn’t matter. You have to change how you teach it.

So, I threw myself into a focus on my methods.  How were students supposed to thrive if everything we did was so high-stakes?  How were they supposed to feel any agency or empowerment if they didn’t have as much choice as I did in their curriculum?

41v68aRP5UL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI did a lot of reading about the importance of how we do things.  Penny Kittle mentioned Dov Seidman’s How at NCTE, and I jotted the title down, thinking it was one my husband would enjoy.  I bought it for him, but ended up devouring it myself.  Thomas Friedmann applied Seidman’s principles to the economy; why couldn’t I apply it to teaching, too?

That was when I committed to full-on workshop teaching, and that was the year I experimentally abandoned teaching whole-class novels, too.  I liked a lot of the changes I saw in my students, but with my focus on how I was teaching, I felt that my curriculum began to weaken.  Units felt disjointed since I wasn’t spending as much time obsessing about what to teach.  Something intangible felt lacking.

I had to move back toward strengthening my curriculum, while maintaining the benefits of an added focus on my methods, in a new kind of classroom.

I realized that I needed to combine all three of those things to get closer to achieving a good balance:  knowing who I taught, thoughtfully considering how I taught, and carefully selecting what I taught.

It wasn’t enough to teach with a pedagogy of engagement if what I was teaching didn’t match who I was teaching.  Similarly, it wasn’t enough to design layered, high-interest units of study that featured reading and writing and talk and practice and joy if the things we read and wrote and talked about and practiced didn’t match what my students cared about.

With every lesson and unit I design, I struggle to find the sweet spot that balances who and what and how I teach.  Like all teaching, it will always be a great deal of work to find that balance–but being aware of the necessity of all three of those factors has without a doubt improved my practice.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.


2 thoughts on “What We Teach vs. How We Teach

  1. […] teachers and teaching and learners and learning.  We’re here because of love–love for who and what and how we teach.  Yesterday, I shared my learning from the morning sessions of that conference, and today […]


  2. Smith-Chavira Terri April 4, 2017 at 7:25 am Reply

    Amen! Brutal honesty! Will order the book! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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