How I Teach

(from my Disney Awards Application)

All of my favorite teachers shared a rich love of life and a desire to experience as much as possible. They opened themselves up for their students, letting us see they not only were teachers but artists, writers, parents, friends, neighbors…. And perpetual students. From them I absorbed the fundamental tenet underlying my classroom practice: live and learn as you teach; enjoy yourself; and share that joy with many people as possible. After all, what you do in the classroom is a part of your own life as well as that of your students. Real knowledge is learning to make connections, I believe; and I’m famous for continually prompting–and sometimes even prodding—my students to explore and examine connections between each of the things they do and the greater scheme of their individualized lives.

Teaching the way I do is not for everyone. What some would call my seat of the pants teaching style really is just me operating to keep flexible so that the class—the students and me—can have our needs met. My goal as their teacher is to help them forge a strong connection between a lesson and their lives, and sometimes this means ditching a lesson mid stream, refocusing, and then continuing down the right path.

Scary to some people, too, would be my habit of telling my students I don’t know something if they’ve asked me a question that stumps me. But I relish that in mere seconds, we’ve all set out as a benign militia on a quest for the answer. At the end, the reward is simple: a satisfying sense of fulfillment in going through the process of tracking down an answer together. The process allows ownership of information to be shared among us all and helps unify classroom spirit. And spirit is important. It builds confidence and community.

One of my students this year recently called out in class, "You teach like Pippi Longstockings! You always know the funnest and most interesting way to do something." Like her classmates, she was laughing, hanging off the side of her chair. We were watching our class on TV. That morning, we had finished taping commercials the kids had concocted for a unit using advertising. Because advertising has become almost naturalized in our lives and because it is interdisciplinary by custom, it is useful for demonstrating movement between and among many important concepts: persuasion; market economics; process oriented recipes; customary units of measurement; nutritional content of foods; acting; singing; drawing; and writing. Just as important, however, is the opportunity the unit offers to expand on less tangible but critical components of learning.

Engaging and challenging students at varying levels of learning development is one of these components. Commercials and advertising is one way to offer stronger writers in a class the opportunity to take risks, to push boundaries, and so move their writing forward. At the same time, the familiar but quirky world of TV commercials can pique the interest and involvement of the class’s more reluctant writers. During the project the class writes, revises, tapes, revises, and tapes again. We learn from our mistakes. It is crucial to learning to have ample time to ponder and reflect on what we have just experienced or created. Sorting out and synthesizing experiences are critical aspects of the learning process. Feedback is also a consistent and integral part of that process. In writing, directing, and producing the commercials, it’s especially useful. I have implemented discussion groups, debates, and response logs to focalize key elements of the students’ experiences. I’m always trying to model that receiving feedback with an open mind frees us to self-assess our own learning and gives us expertise—which in turn leaves us ready to make the kinds of revisions necessary for success. I believe that learning these life lessons can yield the ultimate payoff: lives that are authentic, meaningful, and memorable.

And I hope that’s what I’m teaching.




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