On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School

Just like their colleagues around the country, New York City teachers will be back in their schools next week, arranging tables, organizing classroom libraries, hanging up charts and meeting with colleagues to share resources and plan in preparation for the million and more students who will arrive on Thursday for the first day of the new school year. What this year will bring, no one fully knows—especially those of us working in states that are “racing to the top.” But contrary to what some unfortunately think, I believe that the vast majority of this country’s teachers are quite capable of meeting whatever challenges lay ahead because they’re thoughtful and resourceful, flexible and resilient, conscientious and persistent—the very qualities a new book on education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Characterby Paul Tough, equates with success.

Of course, in the age of the Common Core Standards, such a claim cannot stand without textual evidence. And so this week, to support my claim, mark the launch of the school year and celebrate the wisdom of teachers, I’d like to share some of the comments I’ve received from teachers this year. In each case, I’ve put an image that links the comment to the post it’s responding to. And in each case, you’ll see teachers actively thinking: wrestling with ideas, reflecting on their practice, listening to students, questioning and wondering, and perhaps most importantly, learning. For as writer Richard Henry Dann once said, “He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

In the pursuit of learning, these teachers push their thinking about reading, their students and education in general. And in doing so, they’ve kept me thinking and learning. They’ve also often been able to articulate something I’d been struggling to say myself. I’m hoping that they’ll inspire you, too, as you dive into this new year and begin to learn about your students as readers, writers, thinkers and learners.

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison

“This really reminds me how informational is deep and filled with ideas and themes, and we teachers do a disservice if we require students to determine ‘the main point” of a text like The Story of Salt. A reader could ‘mine’ that text for evidence of how communities develop, the importance of trade, the unintended consequences of contact . . . all sorts of themes could be the ‘the main idea’ depending on how one decided to read the text. An all-encompassing main idea would likely be so general as to be pretty much meaningless.” Steve Peterson

“I wonder how the bigger system of public education would shift if we consistently and constantly provided instruction based on student strengths and what they know vs. on what we perceive they don’t know. How might standardized testing change (or spontaneously combust) if this was our national paradigm?” Jessica Cuthbertson (For her own take on the first day of school, see http://transformed.teachingquality.org/blogs/08-2012/teachers-night-first-day-school)

“One should always consider how much front loading is necessary. I was once doing a ‘picture walk’ with a first grader prior to his reading a book. His urgent request: “Don’t tell me the end!” Another lesson taught by a student! How many times do we ‘spoil’ the reading by over teaching.” Nancy McCoy

© 2011 D.A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

“The purpose of reading a novel is to ask questions, comprehend a story and to engage with the text. I also understand why most ELA’s are concerned about this new way of teaching. It’s NEW! It goes against everything we have been taught about reading instruction. We have taught the vocabulary, the setting of the story, the characters, introduced every concept that we think important for students in the process of dissecting the novel FOR THEM. This is where the new approach turns the tables. We want students to take part in the process and start thinking on their own . . . While changing the way we effectively teach reading, we may actually change the way students perceive reading. We may instill the enjoyment of a gift that could potentially change their lives and have them career and college ready, too.” Deborah Mozingo

“Inductive thinking—what some would call synthesizing, right?—moving from parts to whole. I find this so hard to teach readers except when thinking aloud about a read aloud we are in together, but the moments when it does work seem like magic. You see it in the eyes of the students—teaching reading is about striking the balance between the art and the science—because when you lean too much on the science then the magic disappears.” Ryan Scala

. . . I was feeling that the students and I were not connecting on the latest unit where they were reading independent books (nonfiction). The wide variety of titles and interests was becoming unwieldy for me as well . . . and I was looking for a common thread. So (in desperation) I suddenly asked what was the purpose to coming to English? Worksheets would not have worked in the brainstorming session that followed . . .and I think we are a little more ‘re-calibrated’ as to what we are trying to achieve together. I am finding a new understanding about how purpose is at the heart of every lesson . . . and that practicing ‘what is my purpose’ will make thinking about questions (to quote you) automatic and fluent.” Colette Marie Bennett (For her post on the brainstorming session, see http://usedbooksinclass.com/2012/02/15/so-i-asked-whats-the-purpose-of-english-class/)

“I wonder if we, as teachers, did a better job of presenting education as a journey into the unknown, rather than a means to an end, students would be more willing to come along for the ride.”  Catherine Flynn

These comments and others remind me (Vicki) that teaching, too, is as an art as much as a science and that the first day of school is always an embarkation into the unknown. Here’s my hope that it’s a thrilling ride for all of us, teachers, administrators and students alike, and that by engaging and valuing the journey, even when it’s messy or hard, we’ll manage to reach a deeper and more meaningful end (while meeting the Standards as well).

9 thoughts on “On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School

  1. Thank you for including me in your blog. What is particularly “cosmic” is that immediately after my statement, you selected a quote from my dear friend, Catherine Flynn. We are united philosophically in this blog with you. Teaching is the ying of art and the yang of science…you balance these ideas very well in your thoughtful posts. Thank you again!

    • You’re more than welcome! And what a nice, serendipitous coincidence that you & Catherine Flynn wound up side by side. My own “cosmic” moment came when, working on the post, I saw your brilliant comment at Burkins & Yaris on the absurdity of trying to assign complexity grades to poems, especially using Lexile levels. And that sent me back to your blog where I found the perfect statement of what’s so wrong with so much of the thinking around the CCSS: “A curriculum is not rigorous because of a text; a curriculum is rigorous because of what a student does with a text.” Amen.

  2. Thank you so much for this blog of yours (and the books!) The quality thinking from you and the responders has been the basil on the tomato,
    the hops in the ale,
    the wood thrush on the oak branch,
    the raspberry in the cream, and
    the chickory along the roadside
    of my professional year.

    Best wishes for the year to come!

    • You’re very welcome, Steve. Not only did this bring a smile to my face (and make me fix tomatoes with basil and mozzarella for dinner) but you’ve given me an opportunity to use an Italian expression I learned this summer in the class I took: fare il gioco, which literally means “to make the game.” Basil fa il gioco for tomatoes and readers fanno il gioco for me!

  3. What a true point and a powerful way to make it. Educators are learners, and yes we can face any challenge ahead. In the time when the political world seems to believe teachers are just a bunch of summers-off loafers that have no drive, you point to what should be obvious: the internet, alone, is flooded with blogs, tweets, and wikis of educators constantly pursuing better instruction, personal learning. Love it. New to your blog, but not to you, I’m looking forward to more to come. – Chris

    • Hello & welcome to To Make a Prairie, Chris! And thank you so very much for reblogging this post! I think there’s only been one degree of separation (i.e., Lucy & Mary) between us, so it’s nice to be directly connected. And having just checked out your blog, it seems we’re also clearly connected not only through our ongoing commitment to readers and writers workshop, but by our admiration for the amazingly vibrant and vital world of educators online. (And I loved your calling out Eric Schmidt & google! Workshop is the original “flipped classroom”) So here’s to being connected!

  4. Reblogged this on Christopher Lehman and commented:
    I’ve heard so much about Vicki Vinton’s education blog. I’ve loved her work and today just started following in earnest, and already I’m inspired. In today’s post she reminds not just us – but the political world – that the internet is full of educators blogging, tweeting, thinking together. She shows this beautifully by pairing quotes from others with images. I’m a subscriber now, consider doing the same.

  5. Pingback: A Must Read from Vicki Vinton « Christopher Lehman

  6. Pingback: The Start of a Tradition: Kicking Off the School Year with Teacher Thinking | To Make a Prairie

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