Quick Tip Tuesday: The Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

June 23rd, 2009

In Growing Readers, author Kathy Collins helps teachers lay a foundation on which children can build rich and purposeful reading lives. But to be able to support that foundation, Kathy says that teachers have to continually learn about themselves and about their students. In this week’s Quick Tip she talks about how she continues to observe and learn about her students and how she uses the support of her fellow teachers and school principal to learn about and improve her own teaching.

We teachers have a huge responsibility to know our subject matter, our students, and our teaching. These three things are always evolving, and it’s our job to keep up with the changes.

As teachers of reading, we need to know what’s going on in the field of reading beyond our district’s prevailing model. This means we have to continue to educate ourselves about the reading process and learning issues. We need to be sure our knowledge base about reading is ever-growing and that it leads us to more inquiries in our teaching. The best teachers I know never feel like they’ve mastered it, and so they keep trying to figure things out. It’s as if there’s a carrot forever dangling in front of them.

It’s helpful to talk to colleagues about our teaching. Although it may feel more comfortable and affirming to talk to like-minded colleagues, it’s also important to talk to teachers who might do things differently. Listening to those who have different ideas keeps us open-minded, and it can help us clarify, strengthen, and amend our own beliefs and practice.

I can’t emphasize enough the power of being part of a supportive network of teachers. I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project throughout my teaching life. Lucy Calkins, the founding director, provides many different venues for teachers to come together to share ideas, study with experts, confront difficulties, and perhaps most important, to know we’re not alone.

This idea of continuing to learn about our subject matter and learning from our colleagues, of course, extends to learning about our students. I listen closely to everything my students say, especially when they don’t know I’m listening. I watch my students’ interactions with classmates and other adults throughout the day in order to add more details to the picture I have of each child. When we closely observe our students, we learn about them, of course, but we can also learn about our teaching. One of my former students was also one of my most important teachers. I noticed that Shakeem seemed reluctant to participate during lessons and class discussions. I didn’t consider him to be shy, and he was a strong student, so it seemed sort of strange that I rarely heard his voice. I talked to Shakeem’s parents about how quiet he was and how I was trying to get him to participate more. They were surprised to hear this. “He’s usually very outgoing and doesn’t seem intimidated by groups,” his parents told me, as they recounted different situations in which he had participated with enthusiasm. We were puzzled, so I began to watch closely for times when Shakeem did express his ideas in class.

I noticed that he often participated during math lessons. During literacy work, however, Shakeem was silent. He rarely contributed to a book talk or offered insight during a writing lesson. My theory was that Shakeem didn’t feel as comfortable stating his opinions on more amorphous topics as he did answering questions that had a definite right or wrong answer. My theory was that he liked the security in knowing that he was right. I felt as if I had uncovered a little project to work on in my classroom.

The project required that I not only think about Shakeem and his participation but also reflect on my teaching. If I were to encourage Shakeem and other learners like him to participate more, I would need to fine-tune certain aspects of my teaching. I realized that instead of having whole-class discussions during book talks in which the same handful of children tended to participate, I needed to provide more opportunities for my students to “turn and talk” to a partner.

For children like Shakeem, it’s not as threatening to share an opinion with a friend as it is to do so in front of the whole class, and talking to a partner also provides a venue (as well as an expectation) for children to share their thinking about books. When I have my students turn and talk, I can scoot around and listen to what they are saying, so I hear more ideas than I generally would in a whole-group discussion.

In addition to watching students as a way of reflecting on our teaching, it can be very informative to watch our teaching on videotape. As miserable as it is to see and hear myself on videotape, I try to take the high road and focus more on my teaching than my bad haircut or fashion faux pas. I look for places in my teaching where I could be more explicit or concise. I’ve also found that it can be just as informative to focus the video camera on the students in order to watch their reactions, responses, and levels of engagement as we teach.

I often ask those with more expertise to observe my teaching so that I grow as a teacher. I remember struggling with transitions with one particular class. It felt and looked like Grand Central Station when my students were going from one thing to another. There were materials everywhere, a noise level that rivaled rush hour, and more tattling than I care to remember. I decided to slow down the transitions into their smallest pieces to calm things down. After a few days, I knew it wasn’t working. I needed another pair of eyes, so I asked Liz Phillips, my principal, to help me out. (I realize how lucky I was to have the kind of principal whom I could trust to watch me in action during what I considered one of my weakest classroom moments.) Liz helped me see that in my effort to create calmer transitions by slowing them down, I was actually increasing the tension. “Pick up the pace a bit and don’t wait for stragglers. Just get the next thing started, and they’ll begin to move faster when they know you won’t be waiting for them,” she suggested. What a difference in my class in just a couple of days!

The beauty of a job like teaching is that there are so many opportunities to learn and change. Our job reinvents itself when we get a new class each fall, change grades, or develop a new curriculum. We model all day long as we teach, but perhaps the most important thing we can model is how to learn. I believe that we teachers have to be the most insatiable learners out there.

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