When I first started teaching the English Language Arts Methods course, I prepared in the way that I usually prepare to develop new courses: I examined as many online syllabi as I could find. No matter how each instructor conceptualized the course (and it’s a lot trickier to figure out how to conceive this course than I anticipated), it seemed that most courses provided considerable time for students to design units and write lesson plans.
So I followed suit. We studied standards, identified topics and questions for units, developed rationales, identified texts, created activities and designed assessments.
I don’t think my students were dissatisfied by the process or by the products they left class with (ready-made units in hand), but I have become increasingly dissatisfied with spending our time on unit lesson plans.
It reminds me far too much of the failings of my first year of teaching, and I worry that I’m setting my students up to fail just as I did.
I remember that first year, the panic that would routinely set in on Sunday evenings, the exhaustion, the stacks and stacks of papers I never seemed to have enough time to grade, the classroom management problems that sometimes resulted from poorly planned lessons.
I had five different preps and no curriculum to follow. I relied heavily on pre-designed units, full of detailed daily lesson plans written by experienced teachers. I spent hours every week Googling lesson plans and paging through my professional development books, trying to figure out what I wanted to teach next.
And that was the main thing guiding my thinking: what. What am I going to do with them tomorrow? What will fill the time and get me through the day?
It wasn’t all bad. I used many quality materials in that first year, and I had some successes. A few that I remember fondly ten plus years later: the Folger Shakespeare Set Free series; Traci’s Lists of 10 and lesson plans; Peter Murphy’s three lesson plans designed to accompany Bill Moyers’s “Fooling With Words”; some of the poetry exercises in William Stafford’s Getting the Knack.
We did a unit on this and a unit on that, and I fervently hoped it was all magically going to add up to something like meaningful learning.
My students did a lot of work, all of which was thrown away and forgotten at the end of the year. Their learning ended on the last day of school. I didn’t give them anything to take with them for the rest of their journey.
I was pretty much the opposite of the effective teacher Joseph and Lucy Milner describe in Bridging English:
Effective teachers . . . need more than busy classes; they need basic tenets, a core of beliefs about learning, language, and literature, to shape activity into engaging, purposive, and effective learning.
I had busy classes; we did stuff. “Keep ‘em busy” could have been my motto for the year. But engaging, purposive, and effective? Not so much.
It’s hard to develop a core of beliefs about literacy and learning when you’re just trying to survive to the next day.
I spent the summer between my first and second years of teaching trying to figure out what I wanted to give my students for the rest of their journey.
It started with a simple question: what do I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year?
But “doing” wasn’t really my problem. I already had my students doing a lot. What I needed was the being and the becoming. So I revised the questions. Who did I want my students to be? Who did I want them to become?
When I think of what I want to give my Methods students for their journeys, it isn’t a unit or a lesson plan–not even a really good one. Because effective teaching isn’t about having a tight unit on Holocaust literature or the Beat poets, ready to teach to any student anywhere in any grade, 7-12.
Effective teaching is about having a core of beliefs to guide the decisions you make in the classroom.
In Strategic Reading, Jeffrey Wilhelm talks about “bottom lines”–what we absolutely have to accomplish in our classrooms to feel like we’ve been successful.
And that’s my bottom line in Methods: that’s what I need to accomplish in order to feel like I’ve been successful with this group of students. I want my students to leave my class with a vision: a vision of themselves as teachers, a vision for what they’re trying to accomplish in their classroom, a vision for what their students can be and become, a vision of what they themselves can be and become.
I want my students to ask a harder question of their curriculum than I knew how to ask in my first year: why.
Why leads to purpose and meaning. Why leads to learning.
That’s where we begin.