Teacher-to-Teacher: End-of-Year Epiphanies
By Janice Ewing
My grad class is small this term, a seminar-like community with lots of conversation and sharing of ideas and experiences. The comfort level among the group is a welcome respite at a time when everyone is striving to fulfill end-of-year requirements and scrambling to reach unmet goals, while keeping up with grad school and family obligations.
Recently, a few of the teachers shared experiences that were unexpectedly positive and rewarding. For example, Anne (names have been changed) teaches in an alternative high school for students who have previously dropped out or taken other detours from the traditional path to graduation. Most, if not all, have had struggles and negative experiences with reading, robbing them of the pleasurable experience of getting caught up in a book. By chance, Anne acquired a large enough collection of Walter Dean Myers’ Monster to accommodate her small class. She had not read the book, but had read reviews and commentaries and it seemed like a great fit for her students. She decided to jump in without reading it ahead, which was not her usual practice. Next issue: a well-meaning colleague pointed out that there were related “packets’ available, which would provide questions, prompts, discussion points, etc. An inner voice told her to forgo the packets, and she listened to it.
Fast forward: the students are immersed in the book, engage in passionate conversations about it, share strong, visceral reactions to the characters, and are interested in their teacher’s reactions as she delves into the book with them, for the first time. In short, they are experiencing the flow of having a book come to life in their heads, and relating to each other and their teacher in reader-to-reader relationships. Literacy skills and strategies are growing naturally along the way. The book lends itself well to a readers’ theater format, so lots of reading and re-reading with fluency and expression is taking place. There’s much rich discussion and note-taking about the characters, so more formal character analyses will be an attainable stretch. But as important as those practices are, the value of these students’ experience of loving a book and sharing their reactions to it with other passionate readers is immeasurable.
Another example — this time the scene is a second grade classroom in a bursting-at-the-seams urban elementary school. Sarah, the determined but beleaguered teacher, faces numerous challenges, including a less-than-supportive administration and a large class, with a range of abilities and reading levels that bring to mind the one room schoolhouse. Add to this a little girl with strong and persistent bullying tendencies. On one recent day, Sarah’s attention was drawn from a reading group she was leading to a cluster of children in a corner of the room with the afore-mentioned child at the center. Now what, she thought, as she walked over quietly to listen in. To Sarah’s surprise, the girl had a book in her hand, from the classroom library, and was holding it open to face the group around her.
As she inched closer, Sarah heard her asking the children questions about some of the more challenging vocabulary words in the text, assessing their background knowledge for the story, using almost the exact syntax and inflection that Sarah uses. The other children were raising their hands and responding to the questions, receiving feedback as to whether their answer was correct or “close, but not exactly.” Sarah managed to get her phone out and videotape part of this “lesson.” Her reaction, which she shared in our class: “This was my moment as a teacher; this was it.” We all knew what she meant.
So what’s the common thread here? I think there is much to glean from each of these anecdotes, but here are my takeaways. Anne, the alternative high school teacher, took a calculated risk by jumping into a novel with her students, without having pre-read it. This was partly in the interest of time (their semester was rapidly drawing to a close), but I think there was something else at work here. Intentionally or not, her genuine enthusiasm for finding out ‘what happens next’ along with her students was a refreshing and empowering experience for them. Further, her decision to eschew prepared prompts and worksheets and to let her students’ interests as well as her overall goals for them guide her, created the conditions for authentic learning. I don’t know if she will repeat this exact series of steps, but she will strive to recreate these conditions that proved to be so fertile for her students.
Sarah, the second grade teacher, learned an important lesson from her student. Before this experience, if she had created a list of pluses and minuses from this school year, her interactions with this particular child would probably have shown up on the minus side. Not because she didn’t have recognizable strengths (reading proficiency and vocabulary among them), but because Sarah felt that she had not found a way to capitalize on those strengths, and instead, spent much time and energy trying to change the child’s behavior. Suddenly, she saw her through a different lens. This second-grader, who seemed to reject her teacher’s influence, had in fact internalized her language and style so convincingly that she was able to take on her role! In our grad class, we talked about how this could be a pivotal experience in seeing this child, and helping her to see herself, as a leader, with gift for teaching.
Serendipitous shifts in practices and perspectives led Anne and Sarah to new insights into their students’ identities as readers, learners, and teachers. What end-of-year epiphanies have unfolded in your classroom?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.