Sunday Dialogue: A Talent for Teaching

I am positively giddy over my New York Times 7-Day Home Delivery and Unlimited Digital Access, which I purchased as a gift to myself for all of my hard work this year.

How poignant that today’s Sunday Dialogue discusses what makes a talented teacher! I enjoyed reading the readers’ comments (some of whom are students, some veteran teachers, and some Teach for America “folks”), as they caused me to reflect on my own teaching practice.

This year, my students have shown a great deal of growth in standardized reading test measures. In fact, predictive assessments show that my special education and ESL students have grown by an average of 11% on measures of grade-level reading assessment (moving them from the “Warning/Failing” NCLB category to “Needs Improvement”), with several students showing growth of 20% or more (almost “Proficient”). Additionally, my students have very high attendance (around 95% or so).

I am a sixth year public school teacher, yet I had several years of experience working with children and young adults as an after-school music (piano, voice) instructor as well as experience tutoring college students in ESL. Also, throughout graduate school, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where I currently teach (and plan to teach for a long time).

So, what has shaped me as a teacher and what has made a difference for my students?

1) Mentorship

When I was a student teacher for four months in 2006, I had the great fortune of having Dr. Berta Berriz as my practicum supervisor. This incredible, strong woman possessed a doctoral degree and a NBPTS certification, and she had diligently served for 27 years in the Boston Public Schools as a classroom teacher. How inspiring to work with a veteran teacher who had continued her professional growth and developed her practice over three decades. I worked alongside Dr. Berriz in her classroom, and I found her methods for teaching reader’s and writer’s workshop and building students’ identities as scholars to be positively inspirational. To this day, I incorporate her style of writer’s workshop in my own classroom.

I made up my mind to follow in her footsteps. After becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued my special education degree (just like Dr. Berriz) and I am currently pursuing my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification. Six years ago, I also made a promise to myself to stick with teaching for 30 years, by any means necessary. I want to be that teacher in the future who teaches her students’ children and maybe even their children’s children.

For the past three years, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with Mrs. Deborah O’Shea, a middle school teacher and teacher leader who pursued her Reading Specialist license while serving at our urban public school. Mrs. O’Shea recruited me at a difficult time in my career, after I had been asked to reapply to my position at a highly dysfunctional “Turnaround School” and had refused. Mrs. O’Shea encouraged me to continue my professional development and strongly encouraged my enrollment in the MGH Communication Sciences and Disorders Reading Specialist CAS program. This program has not only developed my knowledge of reading expertise, but it has also provided me with a network of like-minded literacy teachers and speech and language pathologists who value knowledge of phonics, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and oral language development as essential elements of classroom instruction. Mrs. O’Shea has been a continual source of encouragement, and she shares my pride in my students for each and every academic and social achievement that they make.

2) Quality Professional Development

When I say quality, I mean research-based. There is a breadth of educational research literally at our fingertips (http://scholar.google.com – Most articles on this site from leading educational journals are accessible from the Boston Public Library website with a library card number and PIN number).

There is absolutely no reason for professional development of any kind that is not research-based. Be skeptical of what you spend your time on and look for the research to back it up. There are tons of “educational products” available for sale. Be wary of “white papers” and research by corporate entities themselves. Look for the citations of research from universities and esteemed professional organizations (i.e. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The International Reading Association, etc.) when you attend a presentation or seminar.

The best professional development for me has been self-selected graduate courses and programs, as well as a fantastic training provided by our district and taught over several weekends by Connie Henry and Bruce Kamerer on examining the base-10 number system to develop number sense.

I consider the gold standard of professional development to be the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification in which teachers examine and reflect on their practice through the careful examination of student work and videos of their teaching in the classroom. Teachers completing this certification must submit a dense portfolio, which includes 4 extremely dense 14-page essays that include description, analysis, and reflection, and they also must pass a rigorous three hour examination that consists of six essays about the content and practice of their certificate area.

Basically, the more I know about teaching and research, the better I can teach my students.

3) Rigor

My students have a lot of challenging work, every day of every week.

They are required to read aloud in our classroom, and they are graded on their decoding and prosody. I assign passages from class novels or selection on articles, and they practice at home, using dictionary.com to perfect pronunciation of unknown words.

My students complete essays regularly using process writing. Every day in my class, they are writing at least a page or more, single spaced. Sometimes they are writing answers to comprehension questions. Other times they are reflecting on a class project. Other assignments include writing, revising, and editing drafts of longer assignments.

What is my classroom management strategy? I provide difficult assignments within the students’ zones of proximal development, and I supply a great deal of encouragement and support. (At this time of year, I can be frequently heard saying,”You know how to do this. I have given you the tools you need. So, reach in the toolbox of your brain and use them!”).

4) Celebration, Joy, and Arts Integration

This is my “warm/fuzzy” side. After we work hard, we party hard (but still maintain our academic focus).

I celebrate students’ achievements. This can be as simple as a high five or a small piece of candy. After students performed in a play, they received certificates, and I put a video of their play on YouTube. When students publish a collection of essays in a book, we celebrate with a publishing party at which students read their work aloud and then they have an opportunity to autograph one another’s books.

After the first and third quarter, students who receive passing grades are invited to special field trips to 826 Boston, a local writing center, and then, they are treated to ice cream at McDonald’s (not the healthiest, I know, but it’s a special treat).

Arts Integration brings excitement and joy to my lessons. Again, this can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. For example, when we studied the concepts of compression and tension, we “acted out” the diagrams of an arch bridge and a suspension bridge in our reading by pushing and pulling of hands. We have constructed a tetrahedron with brightly colored paper in order to explore geometric concepts.

I sing out “Hy! Potenuse” in a silly voice, so that my students can remember the word. I teach using evidence in writing through having students “act out” a weight lifter. Evidence bulks up your argument, just like a weight lifters weights make him strong. A visual image of a weight lifter with rippling muscles is posted on an anchor chart in my classroom that reminds students to “bulk up” their argument with evidence.

One student told me,”When we laugh, we laugh hard, but when it’s time to work, we know you’re serious.”

5) Parental Involvement

My students’ parents are urban immigrant families who work. They are also caring and dedicated parents who love their children and want the best for them. We keep in touch regularly through text messages and phone calls in English, Spanish, and my terrible version of Portuguese-Cape Verdean-Criollo mixed with a splash of Spanish and a dash of made-up words.

At the beginning of the year, students are given syllabi that have my picture and contact information on it and their parents must sign the syllabus, so they at least see who I am. After first quarter, students select their best work and write reflections. Parents are then invited to attend Student-Led Conferences to show their work to their families and to set academic goals for the remainder of the school year. I had 15 out of 18 families from my grade 7 and 8 ESL 3 class attend these conferences.

Conclusion

I will close with one of my favorite quotations: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” I learned this from working with Patricia Suriel of the Mariposa DR Foundation in the Dominican Republic. For my own practice, I interpret this quotation to mean that I do not need to wait around for an administrator or policy maker to tell me what to do.

I will continue to seek out best practices and apply them to my students and teaching. Teachers do not need to wait around for an official or administrator to approve their work or to tell them which program to use. If teachers collect data on students (notebooks and file folders with dated assignments – make your students write the date on everything!) to show their progress, teachers have evidence to show that students are learning and growing. I have found that if I get good results and act professionally, I will be respected and not micro-managed.

Teachers cannot wait for the government or an organization or even the New York Times to tell us what is best for our students. We all can have a critical eye and examine the research on our own. We can look at data (student work) every day, and see what is working for Angel, what is not working for Clayton, what is working for Natalie…no one else knows the children like we do.

We must become experts on the students we serve and learn practices that serve them well and inspire them to take on difficult assignments and challenge themselves academically. Our students are our future. Will we cloak our future in bureaucracy and petty debates? Or will we forge a path of values, hope, and success? We are the ones we have been waiting for, and we can do this.

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