Saturday, December 15, 2007

Re-Examine All You Have Been Told

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia (outside D.C.) last month.

I came to teach personal narrative writing to the upper elementary grades, with a focus on grade 5, since fifth graders take the SOLs, or Standards of Learning, test (The Test) in the spring each year.

You can see me here, giving some directions to fifth graders, with some prompts written on my chart paper in the background, and an interpreter for the hearing impaired in the background -- at times we had three interpreters in the room at once, all walking around following me when I was walking around... we were like a tiny parade in the classroom.

I got used to them quickly, though, and it was clear that the students were used to this.I have been teaching in the classroom for close to twenty years, and I am still learning, still learning. Still re-examining all I have read, all I have been told, all I have experienced. Still discovering my mentors, making my own determinations, finding my own voice.

It's a thrill to feel myself stretching and growing as I am standing there in front of a classroom of writers, as I have conversations about the day with teachers, as I prepare myself for the next day with students, as they ask me hard questions or struggle with their stories... and I have strong opinions about the teaching of writing, and about teaching, period.

These folks have strong opinions, too. Here are Lisa Vasu, who teaches ESL at Canterbury Woods, and Matt Radigan, who is a counselor and instructional coach. There are three of these instructional coaches/mentors at Canterbury Woods. Principal Barbara Messinger has set up her staff in such a way that she has created a base of staunch support for her teachers and students... and they take advantage of that support. It's fantastic.

Until I can tell you more, just know that Lisa and Matt are amazing. When students begin to master their English skills, Matt gives them a congratulatory high-five and says, "You've been Vasued!" Matt comes to CW from Teach For America and from D.C. charter schools. He's full of energy, enthusiasm, and smarts. And he has good hair.

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods; moreover, I'm processing HOW I LEARNED IT. The environment I was immersed in for four days was an amazingly open and generous one -- the conversations were rich and deep and meaningful. I will never know everything I need to know -- will any of us? -- about the teaching of writing or about improving my own writing, but when I know I am learning something that is key to my understanding, I am exhilarated by the thought.

I am a perpetual student. In every way. As regards the teaching of writing, the best learning labs for me are schools that are wrestling their writing programs to the mat, always learning. They bring me in for a sustained period of time to work with teachers and students. I get to share what I have learned. I learn from them as well.

I have had wonderful and difficult experiences in many schools over the past twenty years, but two experiences stand out as the best and worst over that time. And interestingly enough -- both the best and the worst have taught me so much. Life is like that, too -- I guess I shouldn't be surprised that teaching is the same way.

Canterbury Woods is one of the best teaching/learning experiences I have ever had. I'll be sharing with you why I think this is so -- I'll tell you what I learned.

By contrast, one of the most difficult teaching experiences -- and this was just a few years ago, in an elementary school not far from Canterbury Woods -- taught me the most as well. I'll talk about this, too. I remember going home at the end of each residency day and crying with frustration, filling a notebook with what happened and with what I'd learned and with ideas on how I could change things up and make the teaching more relevant, more directed, more prescriptive for this particular environment. It ended up being a great week. It turned me inside out as a teacher and a student.

In the meantime, I'm still processing. Still learning, while I'm enjoying time with my family this holiday season, home home home. I've written more about this on One Pomegranate, which is where I'll continue to chronicle my teaching thoughts in January, and my travels, and more.

Next: How we set up the residency at Canterbury Woods Elementary School, and why it worked so well... how teachers and staff are turning teaching on its ear and giving it a polish --- and what a difference it's making in the growth and learning of not only students, but faculty and staff as well.

There is a Cavafy poem I love called "Half the House." It's about growing and learning, and at first glance it doesn't seem like it makes sense, perhaps, but I find it distills my thoughts about teaching. And living. You can find the poem online, including at One Pomegranate's latest entry, this date.

I'll leave you with Whitman's words from the preface of the first edition to LEAVES OF GRASS. They are the words I use to open THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul."

Go forth with an open heart. Learn.