Tonight I was invited to give a guest presentation at the Strategies for Teaching Literature course at West Chester University, in partnership with the PA Writing and Literature Project. I’m grateful for the opportunities to share what works in my classroom—and even more grateful that people somewhere think I have something to offer—but what I like most about the opportunities is that they allow me take stock of where I am in my teaching and to do the necessary work of self-reflection.
One of my goals in teaching reading (and writing) is to try to make the invisible visible—how can I take this wonderful and complicated process of reading, all of which happens in our heads, and really show kids what this process looks like? In getting my materials together in the days leading up to the presentation, I tried to come up with a way to best organize the ideas I wanted to share. In the end, however, I decided to walk through 20 strategies I use to make reading more visible to students. Many of them are strategies that I would consider “tried and true”—these are the strategies I’d consider part of my “toolbox” as a teacher. I have enough experience now that I know exactly how each of these tools can work in any given situation.
But among the 20 strategies I included were also ones that I had only been using in recent years, and one or two that I tried (or will try) for the first time this year. During the presentation, one of the things I mentioned was that I am constantly trying to find new and better ways to teach the material. I rarely teach any novel the same way from year to year. Sometimes the difference is a matter of tweaking, cutting some things here and there for time’s sake. But other times, I’ve made whole-scale—even dramatic—changes to my approach.
I know many veteran teachers who rarely change their materials or their approach to texts from year to year. After all, if something works well enough, then why change it? I wonder sometimes if there’s something wrong with me in that I rarely think anything works well enough—I’m generally of the belief that anything I do, any class or unit or text that I teach can always be improved.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I throw out everything I’ve done before and start new each year. There’s a reason that experience matters. But before I begin any unit, I try to imagine what I’d do if I were starting from scratch. Forcing myself to do this allows me to resist the urge to do things just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
Not every change I make is necessarily for the better. I’ve been trying, for example, some new things with writing as I attempt to move students away (and just get rid of) the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve had some success, but I know that there are things I will do next year to change. But I would have never gotten to this point had I not tried—and perhaps failed a little—in the process.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.