Teacher Appreciation Week

20160403_192717734_iOSIn the spirit of Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought I would appreciate me. Yes, it may seem self-important but who else is going to toot my horn? No, I have not found the ideal teaching opportunity … yet. Yes, I am only substitute teacher and only an adjunct, but that does not mean that I do not put in just as much work or care any less for my students. Despite my lack of professional success, I continue doing teaching because I enjoy working with the students.

I decided that I should celebrate finishing the coursework towards my second master’s and finishing the graduate teaching assistant program at UNO. The last two years have been fast, furious, and stressful. For a number of years I haven’t known anything but studying or writing for a class, nor have I done anything for myself. I’ve done nothing to pat myself on the back. So, I congratulated myself with a trip to Jamaica, but took some schoolwork with me.

Schoolwork with some rum, and some sun sounded like a lot of fun, and a beautiful beach, beautiful surroundings, and a beautiful hotel all helped the cause J. I enjoyed getting away from “it” all, even if it was only for a short time. To sit in a wicker lounge chair under the canopy of a palm tree while sipping on a Bob Marley drink was extremely relaxing. To feel the heat of the sun and hear calmness of the ocean lapping onto the beach was tranquil. The sands softness between my toes while walking the beach felt like I was walking through the clouds. Stepping into the water, I felt an immediate rush from the water’s freshness. Walking in deeper the waters coolness moved up my body as I stared through the water’s clear glass to see what was on the ocean’s bottom. I came to a point where I would just sit down in the water and use the oceans soft sand as my chair. As the water, covers my shoulder’s I occasionally dip below the waterline to escape the sun. Coming back up the taste of salt overwhelms my lips, and it is just awful! There is nothing like this in Nebraska.

It was a trip about doing nothing but relaxing. Outside some schoolwork in the evening, I did nothing during the day but enjoy the pool and the beach. I wasn’t on a schedule nor did I have anywhere to be.

At the resort, the locals who worked as waiters, bartenders, and bussers were welcoming and appreciative that you chose to stay with them. Seemingly, every employee I came across asked me every day, “Are you enjoying your stay with us in Jamaica?” Are you being taken care of?” “Is this your first time to Jamaica?” Partly, because I think the locals want you back. This is a poor country and I would not be surprised if many of the employees I interacted with live in poverty, but it was difficult to tell with the smile with which they greeted you.

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Comparing the Two

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I have often thought that having taught at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels has meant something. That it is some sort of an advantage towards something, or a privilege of sorts, or different perspectives, or just anything. I am not sure what it does for my teaching anymore.  Based on previous experience I know K-12 school districts do not put much value in my eight years of post-secondary teaching experience. Based on my experiences teaching at the postsecondary level I would say that not many at the post-secondary level care that I have experience teaching K-12. So what does all this teaching experience mean?

For it not to mean much of anything, I am often asked to compare the two. I am unsure if I am qualified to compare teaching at the K-12 grade levels, because I do not really teach. I only substitute teach, which is far from teaching. The students I have taught and currently teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha the past two years are not much different from high school students, after all, they are only one or two years removed from graduating high school. Consequently, I am uncertain if there is any difference. If I must compare the two, I will try. Two differences that stand out are classroom management and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I think students know to a point what the expectation level is when they walk into a college classroom. Students know this isn’t their high school classroom. I think this happens in part because parents have conversations with their children about college and secondly, students are not usually taking the same classes as their high school friends and many high school students do not always attend the same post-secondary schools. I say, “To a point” because although younger students may know how to act in a college classroom does not mean that it equates to doing the work.

NCLB does not follow the student from high school to college, nor do the calls home to parents. College students can and are left behind, but “left behind” happens by their own choices. I have this discussion about expectations at the beginning of each semester. It usually goes something like this:

“You’re adults now. You are paying tuition to take this class; therefore, this is your class. I am here to help you be successful, if you want the help. The responsibility of coming to class, following the syllabus, communicating with me, and communicating with your classmates is your responsibility. I cannot help you if you cannot manage these expectations of yourself. I will not be calling you, nor emailing you, nor calling your parents if you do not come to class or complete your assignments. This is your responsibility, and privacy laws prohibit me from speaking to anyone but you regarding your performance in this class. I will do all I can to help you pass this class, but I cannot help you if you’re unwilling to meet me halfway.”

This approach may come across as being hard-nosed, but I think it is important for students to know that there education is on them. I will also add that along with this conversation and conversations that follow throughout the semester are discussions also include the resources available to them on campus, such as the Writing Center. Having this conversation does not seem to deter students from dropping my classes. At least to date I have not seen a windfall of withdrawals. I think students appreciate that I am up front and see my as approachable and available to them when they need help.

Existing on an Island

island           There is just nothing enjoyable about being underemployed. I see myself as unemployed, but technically that is not accurate. As another school year nears the end, I should be looking forward to summer, but I dread it. My summer months go by without a paycheck, well almost. I do adjunct for two community colleges, but fewer class offerings over summer semesters leaves me with fewer opportunities to teach, which means a smaller paycheck, which means I barely make enough to pay my bills.

This summer comes with some additional stress. The two-year Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) program I’ve been part of ends. Sadly, the program is only two years. The GTA program has been both rewarding and frustrating. It has been rewarding, because I have seen my teaching pedagogy develop under the instruction of some terrific instructors. My classroom teaching has also improved, as I have learned the importance of applying scholarship to my lessons. In applying that scholarship, I first had to learn how to be a scholar. Researching and writing scholarship was not something I had previously experienced.

While rewarding, there has also been some levels of frustration. I am the oldest in a group of seven by two to three generations. I was not plucked, handpicked, encouraged, nor asked to apply to the GTA program like my cohorts. I did not enter the program to be groomed, nor a winner of writing scholarships, nor anyone’s favorite student, or world traveler. I was a graduate student who thought getting an opportunity to develop his teaching craft while earning his MA sounded like a terrific opportunity. Unfortunately, I am also someone who entered this gig later in life.

My application was initially rejected, but accepted months later because someone backed out. Compared to the others I felt I’d gotten in by default. Although, I came into the program the only student with any teaching experience, I quickly realized that my cohorts had little use for the knowledge or resources I wanted to share. Several weeks into the first semester, I realized that I needed to focus on what I wanted and stopped trying to share with others. Maybe it’s my fault for seeing the group as a cohort. Maybe I should have seen the semesters first day as a sign. I had no students. My section was not opened; therefore, I had no enrollment. Literally, with some last second juggling half of another class was used to create mine. I’ve had no mentor nor advisor these past two years. When I’ve needed someone to discuss an issue or question, I would schedule anyone who had time.

Another degree that begins with the letter “M” comes with modest reward and no celebration. What do I do next? I have thought about another “M” degree. I am too old for a Ph.D. I’ve already applied to several teaching jobs only to get rejection letters and to be told I don’t have any teaching experience. I’m depressed and feeling some self-pity. Reaching out to a peer, he recommends I sit down and write. Get my feelings down on paper. He said that it’s ok to be depressed, that it comes with the territory.

I reach out to my Professional Learning Network (PLN) of peers on social media often. Today reaching out depressed me. I have no mentor, nor champion, nor cheerleader, nor anyone I can lean on for support. I sit on an island.

Living the Life of a Substitute Teacher

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Being a substitute teacher isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I decided to be an educator. At 52 years-old, I have been trying to get a second career off the ground for 12 years. It can be difficult at times as I look around and see other teachers and administrators my age, and not think how much farther along I should be. I find myself asking why I didn’t I do this years ago but had someone told me 20 years ago that I would teaching I would have laughed. Being a teacher was the farthest thought from my mind when I was younger. But time changes events and you can never say, never.

What I wasn’t ready for was substitute teaching. Walking into a school as a substitute can be like visiting a foreign country for the first time. I like to compare it to a business trip I took years ago to Montreal, Canada, and getting on a subway train. I heard nor saw a language that seemed remotely English; announcements over the train’s intercom, signs, advertisements, the locals spoke French, everything was French. To say I felt out of place would be an understatement. Feeling out of place is the hardest part, that you don’t belong. You have no established relationships – not with teachers, not with administration, and most certainly not with students. You just get these alien looks, the same looks I remember getting when I was riding that subway train in Montreal, of being an outsider.

The worst part of substitute teaching was walking into that classroom, into that school for the first time. Students did not know me and I obviously did not know them. I introduce myself, but students just continue to gawk at me like I’m some ghost. I realize that I’ve stepped back in time. I am not the substitute teacher but the new student all over again, and it’s my first day in a new school. Oh, the horror. Is there something wrong with me? Is there something hanging out of my nose, is my zipper down, or is there this giant “L”oser painted on my forehead? This is about the time when I begin questioning myself.

“Why am I here”?

I answer this question in my own reflections all the time. I am here because I wanted to make a difference in a young person’s life. I’m here because I felt that “calling.” I’m here because I have a passion for instilling my love of learning to read and write in my students. I am here because I see our countries future walk through my classroom door every day, and they will be empowered to be better citizens because they will be educated.

Like most life events, it is getting over that initial shock. It is breaking the ice with the students. You find they are just as anxious to meet you, as you are to meet them. You realize the students are feeling as uncomfortable as you are. They wonder who you are, what kind of teacher you are, what sort of personality you have. You quickly learn that you need to be yourself.

My Classroom at Glance

myclassroomAs a teacher, I instill in my students the same love to read and write that I have by encouraging them to embrace their own learning styles, strategies, and interests. When we read in class, I tell them that I hope to hear a different interpretation of that reading from each of them. If we are writing on a similar topic, I tell that I hope to read different ways to write on that topic. We all read, write, think differently, and will interpret text differently. A classroom of differing learning, writing, and reading styles offer everyone in my class opportunities for reflection and growth. A classroom of different styles also requires that I employ different strategies of teaching. My teaching involves group discussions, activities, and writing; while at other lessons may involve different forms of media which may include PowerPoint presentations, TED Talk, audio, and or graphics.

Employing multiple teaching strategies does not come without risk. My pedagogy is one of risk-taking and being unafraid to make mistakes, and I expect my students to have this same philosophy towards their learning. My lessons do not always achieve what I want them to achieve and sometimes they may just fall flat on their face. However, I have the opportunity to correct my mistakes for the next lesson, and/or re-teach the lesson that lesson the following class period. I give my students the same opportunity to correct their mistakes that I give myself. When my students writing falls flat, I provide timely feedback and then conference on a strategy students need to take to correct those mistakes. I stress that my role is to give them the tools, guidance and instruction needed to succeed, and my students respond by asking questions freely asking me questions. They will ask for my opinions, and they will ask me “why”? As a class, we will discuss “why.”

One tool that I am committed to is having students write every day, and I write with them. We do this by journaling at the beginning of class. I will give them a topic that gets them thinking about what we will be discussing. For example, “What does reading like a writer mean to you?” For 5-7 minutes, we will free write as a class. Throughout our discussion, I will ask students to share what they journaled and how their thoughts fit with our discussion.

Writing cannot be improved without some form of a peer review workshop. I’ve tried different strategies to workshopping peer review, but that one I find most productive to both writing and reviewer is Kate Kostelnik’s, “Writing Center Theory and Pedagogy in the Creative Writing Classroom.” Her pedagogical approach to workshopping just makes sense. As a graduate student consultant working at the University of Nebraska – Omaha’s Writing Center, students and faculty from all areas of the campus brought their writing to be peer reviewed. So, why can’t Writing Center pedagogy be taken to the classroom? It can. What I found that I liked most about using a Writing Center model is that it allows the author and peer reviewer to have a conversation about the writing. The author does not sit back passively and listen to feedback, but active answering questions about their writing, and discussing strategies he/she can use after the peer review session is over to continue revising his/her writing.

Getting Students to Talk to Each Other, Rather than the Teacher

Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

How can we get students to talk to each other in class discussions, rather than just to the teacher? How can we get students to talk to each other in class discussions?

In reading Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching, I’m learning new things and remembering things I’d forgotten about how to help students discuss well. The book is a wonderful resource, rich with theory and practice for teaching with discussion as a way to promote democracy in the classroom and society, which is to say, at least in part, getting students to participate in their own and each others’ learning. Discussion undertaken in the way that Brookfield and Preskill describe gets students actively involved and loosens up the strict teacher-student hierarchy implied and enacted by, say, the traditional lecture.

But these benefits do not occur as well in discussions where all questions and comments by students are directed to the teacher and the teacher responds directly to each thing said. In those cases, the teacher doesn’t hog the ball the whole time, just half…

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Reading like a Writer

bookshelfMy pedagogical approach to writing is supported by my philosophy that students cannot be good writers unless they know how to be good readers first. However, what does it mean to be a good reader and writer? Honestly, for a number of years I did not know. It was just something I told students even though I did not know how being a good reader led to being a good writer. I did not know was how the transfer of reading to becoming a better writer took place.

The idea of reading to become a better writer is not necessarily new. I found this idea from a quote I read from Maya Angelou several years ago in a Composition textbook, and I have read a similar quote from Stephen King, “You’re not ready to write unless you’re reading first.” However, it was not until I read Mike Bunn’s article, “How to Read like a Writer,” did I know how this knowledge transfer happened. Bunn, who is an Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, says this concept of reading like a writer is new to our composition students. I found after discussing this idea with my students that Bunn was accurate in his statement.

This semester I took Bunn’s essay to heart and began teaching how I expected my students to read like a writer. What Bunn says about reading makes sense. Like writing, reading is a process, one word and one sentence at a time. As teachers we want our students to question why authors make certain choices when they write. It’s questioning these choices that helps students improve their own writing. We want our students to ask themselves while they read, “Do I want to incorporate this strategy in my own writing?” Throughout the semester, students will read assigned texts and learn to question why writers use certain words and why writers structure their writing the way they do.

As Bunn explains, as a teacher [I] cannot be so focused on teaching writing that I forget to teach my students how I expect them to read. To model reading like a writer I used an introductory paragraph from my own writing. In reading this paragraph, I asked students first to try discerning what they believed my purpose for writing was, and who was my audience. I stressed to them that it was ok to make assumptions. After discussing their thoughts, I asked they read and question why I used certain words and wrote my introduction the way that I did. I told them to be honest with their feedback and that according to Bunn, all writing can be improved. So mine could also be improved.