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Jan 2002 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Getting Schooled
By Ellen Berg

As in most other professions, keeping abreast of the latest research and practices in teaching is essential. Beyond simply reading professional journals, it is necessary to interact with other teachers to learn from their experiences, as well as to consciously reflect upon our own. Alas, with the overwhelming responsibilities of lesson planning, record keeping, and administrivia, as well as a myriad of other expectations too numerous to list here, the time to think about what we do and why we do it in our classrooms is ever shoved to the side in an effort to keep afloat.

MiddleWeb In the late summer of 2000, an invitation to apply for a unique experience — writing a weekly, online reflective diary about my experiences as a teacher — appeared in my email inbox through the MIDDLE-L listserv. I was eager to do some structured reflection, so I answered the extensive questions about my philosophies and experiences in teaching and submitted a sample reflection piece. I felt certain that the response would be, "Thanks, but no thanks," because of my relative inexperience and the certainty that many others would apply. Fortunately, my now editor and creator of, John Norton, gave me the opportunity to share my trials, triumphs, and thoughts about effective teaching practice at the middle level, and that has made all the difference.

MiddleWeb is supported by a grant from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and is dedicated to middle grades reform efforts. The site includes links to articles with practical and theoretical applications to middle school issues, archived strands from listserv conversations, and the diary entries. In the two years I have been writing my online diary, other diarists have included principals, staff development personnel, a counselor, and other teachers, including a first-year teacher. Entries are posted weekly and focus on some area of our practice or an event from the week we choose to reflect on. I can honestly say that participating in this project has been the most effective professional development I have ever participated in, because it forces me to look closely at what I am doing and to problem-solve or learn in response.

The MiddleWeb listserv began in September 2000, with the mission to focus on important issues related to middle school teaching. The usual venting and focus on teacher's lounge topics found on alternate listservs is noticeably missing, and conversations are of the highest quality. Since its inception, we have added two specialty lists: one to discuss professional books and articles and one for special projects. This past summer several of us attempted to develop an integrated unit through online collaboration, and though we were not completely successful, we are working through some of the stumbling blocks and planning on returning to the unit next summer.

Following is a recent diary entry examining the true spirit of teaching. To read more of my or other teachers' entries, go to and click on "diaries."

The Spirit of Teaching

I vividly remember my days as a student, anxiously checking the clock time and again only to find that a mere minute or two had passed since the last time I looked.

I remember feeling frustrated with teachers who asked for me to express my opinions regarding literature, only to tell me my opinion was wrong when I dared to speak up.

I remember tuning Teacher X or Ms. Y out because I did not hear anything that spoke to me or my needs. I could have cared less about needing to know something in the unidentifiable, foggy future simply because I might need to know.

I also recall those teachers who found a way to speak to me, to connect their content with my life. I especially remember my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Steffan, who encouraged me to use my own voice in writing, who responded to an admittedly bizarre future biography of a peer with, "An engaging piece of fiction, shocking-strange." I have considered myself a writer ever since, mostly because she treated me that way.

The Courage to Teach I have been reading The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer, a book that investigates the "true spirit of teaching." As I read, I keep making connections between powerful quotes from the text and recent events in my classroom. I wonder whether the quotes and the book are opening my eyes to what is going on in my classroom or whether the events in my classroom are deepening my connection with the text. Perhaps it is not an either/or proposition but a reciprocal process. Whatever it is, it has opened my eyes wide to some important observations.

"...teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal — or keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act." p. 6

This first quote pinpoints my belief that we are working for cooperation, not compliance, from children in our classrooms. In times of frustration and challenge with students, even the most seasoned of us resort to threats and punishments to evoke immediate compliance, without regard for long-term cooperation. We feel the need, in the moment, to make students do what we want them to because it is messy and frustrating and a challenge to our position in the classroom to allow students to rebuke us and our edicts. We retreat to that small part of us that believes that children should do what they are told, that we should automatically be respected because we are teachers and adults, to that fear of losing control.

The truth is, we are never in control unless our students choose to give us control. Teachers and students are engaged in a partnership of shared power.

In our best moments, we realize all of this is true. We work with students, helping them to reflect upon their own behaviors and responsibilities and help them grow as human beings. We look for cooperation from our students, which means honoring the spirit of any code of contact rather than just the letter of it.

This is a lesson I seem to relearn year after year. As I have focused on helping my students grow in their behavioral development, measuring and nurturing change in small increments, my classroom has become a more focused, peaceful place of learning. We are slowly building a community, perhaps not as quickly as I would like, but I am looking for permanence rather than convenience. I know the work I do now with my students will either help or hurt them and my colleagues in the long run, and I choose to help them go the distance.

"Though the academy claims to value multiple modes of knowing, it honors only one — an 'objective' way of knowing that takes us into the 'real' world by taking us 'out of ourselves.'" pp. 17-18

"In this culture, the self is not a source to be tapped but a danger to be suppressed, not a potential to be fulfilled but an obstacle to be overcome." p. 18

"What we teach will never 'take' unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students' lives, with our students' inward teachers." p. 31

"We can, and do, make education an exclusively outward enterprise, forcing students to memorize and repeat facts without ever appealing to their inner truth — and we get predictable results: many students never want to read a challenging book or think a creative thought once they get out of school." p. 31

In my frustration with my students' challenging behaviors this year, I realize I have held back, waiting for them to get it together before we worked on more creative, active projects. We dropped group work because they became loud and off task; I avoided creative work because it seemed they could not handle the freedom of expression; I even placed my desks back into straight rows because they were talking across the tables constantly. We did lots of individual assignments with high structure and content, but with little connection to my students' lives. I think they learned, but they hated it and I frequently saw little eyes checking the time out on the clock.

I, too, was miserable. I missed the buzz that comes from student interest, voices, and input. I hated constantly bumping my thighs against the desks that crowded together, the way the rows made my small classroom look cramped and unpleasant. I sat at my desk one planning period, looking out at my desks, realizing all my artificial efforts had brought little real change. If I tried to wait them out, to wait until some immeasurable readiness manifested itself in my students, I would still be waiting around in June, miserable.

I decided, ready or not, here I come. If they weren't ready, I was going to help them get ready. I spent the rest of my planning period pushing desks back into tables of four, smiling as I reclaimed my room and my kids.

I am glad I did.

We have since embarked upon several interactive projects that seek my students' voices and play upon their interests. I wrote last week about using new ways to have students respond to what they read, and since that activity was so successful academically and behaviorally, I moved on to group work. My students worked in jigsaw groups to create their own definitions of myths, and though I had a few problems, the room was alive with student interaction and creativity class after class. As each group gave their presentations, students clapped enthusiastically and helped assess their peers.

The next project was to choose a god, goddess, or creature from a list of Greek characters, draw a picture of the character that included the descriptions from the list, and then write a paragraph that explained how they met their character, and what happened when they met them. Silence befell my room as students carefully pondered which character to draw or eagerly designed their character. Questions like, "Can we write more than a paragraph?" and, "If I finish early, can I do another one?" were asked again and again. The proof of engagement, however, came at the end of my worst class as one of my students cried, "It's time to go already??" and I had to beg students to leave my classroom so the next class could come in.

Even one of my students who has failed to turn in even one piece of homework this year took his project home and returned the next day with a coherent, complete paragraph. "It was easy," he proclaimed.

Now we are working on writing the ending to Atalanta's Race, a myth in their social studies textbook. The text does not include the full story, leaving students instead at a cliffhanger. We created a class question chart to list the questions we have about the ending, then used those questions to create a scoring guide for the project. Students are eagerly sharing their ideas with each other and looking forward to sharing their stories with the class. At the end of the project I will read the whole story to them so they can compare their stories with the original. They have finally shrugged off the misconception that there is a "right" answer to the problems to solve in the story and are inserting a lot of themselves into their work.

I still have problems and disagreements, but I have far fewer issues to deal with since I have sought to connect my curriculum and myself with my students, their interests, and their lives. Even as I see how working to engage and connect my content to my students' lives is working miracles in terms of motivation and academic achievement, I hear too many of my colleagues bemoan the request to gear their instruction to the interests of their students. In their day (young and old proclaim), students learned just because that is what they were supposed to do. Teachers were not expected to "entertain" students by pandering to their interests. I do not see meeting students where they are as entertainment but as an example of salting the oats.

Why do we devalue our students' lives, opinions, and viewpoints in our society? Are we lazy or selfish? Or are we just afraid they might have something important or profound to say, pushing us and our interfering egos out of the limelight?

I keep thinking about how waiting for the kids to get it together before we did anything more creative was stupid...why wait? We should address behavior issues within the context of our best teaching. If students are engaged, if they find themselves in our classrooms and curriculum, and if they see us there as well, we have fewer problems and build our classroom community. Where motivation, interest, compassion, challenge, and high expectations lie, we have a better opportunity to capture children's hearts and minds, the spirit not just the letter of the law.

Ellen Berg has taught 6th grade communication arts for six years at the Turner MEGA Magnet Middle School, part of the St. Louis Public Schools' animation cluster. She serves as the communications arts department chair.

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