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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Five Practices that Transformed My Teaching

"It's nice to be considered" encapsulates the philosophy of The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a K-8 school in Edgecomb, ME. Those exact words, spoken by CTL teacher Ted Demille, still reverberate within my psyche weeks after my visit; I don't think the echoes will ever desist. However, CTL proved to me that "consideration" carries much more weight than "nice." I think "memorable," "life-changing," and "earth-shattering" are much better words to describe the impact of being considered. I know, pretty dramatic. But it's the truth. I'm not sure if I can accurately relay my enlightenment through a blog, but I want to share some highlights of my one-week internship there in hopes of inspiring your teaching heart AND giving you some concrete ideas to help improve your own practice. (Or, go experience their Internship Program first-hand!)

Shadowing Masters

Nancie Atwell, teacher and author, founded CTL twenty years ago. Atwell teaches seventh/eighth grade humanities there, and is the author of many books on reading and writing. In the Middle and Reading Zones are two of her most popular, which highlight how her school operates. What you read is what you get in the classroom. She writes in practicality, but really, it's philosophy. She's the real deal. It's one thing to create a classroom atmosphere based on your educational beliefs but to build a school on them? Like I said, the real deal.

A brilliant teaching staff backs Atwell. There are many non-teaching educational authors in the world who think they know the intricacies of classroom life, but if you don't "do it" (teach) every day of your life, you really don't get it. Along with Atwell, some of the staff members have published books. Ted Demille's book, Making Believe on Paper, highlights Ted's instruction on teaching young kids the art of writing fiction. And, Kindergarten teacher, Helene Coffin's book, Every Child a Reader: Month-by-Month Lessons to Teach Beginning Readers, offers practical lessons on the power of poetry in the reading workshop. Most of the other staff has earned advanced degrees in English, Reading, and Teaching. The school is the epitome of professional growth and they are more than willing to share with their internship program.

My CTL experience impacted my career as a teacher like no other professional development opportunity. Reading a book, shadowing a master teacher utilizing the lessons in the book (that he/she wrote), then debriefing after the lesson is a homerun knockout. When I left CTL I felt stocked with new information, ideas, and systems that I could immediately implement with the support of CTL teachers post-internship.

The School

Community

The responsive nature of the school has left a deep tread in my soul. It's the glue that keeps students and teachers adhered to learning. I'll never forget the first morning meeting I attended. It was a dawning, to say the least. This is a quick snippet from my journal as I was immersed in the school culture.

All students and teachers gather in the reading room -- the Kindergarteners sit on the laps of older students; some parents in the room; News?birthdays, awards, the acquiring of glasses. My brain is hitting the brakes to join the pace of the meeting, which adds to the caring nature of the community. Nothing is really rushed. It's savored. Poetry is read and then songs. The singing of "Long Road to Freedom" accompanied by Ted Demille's woody chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. Angelic -- through the window I picture animals gathering to hear the morning voices of children singing. Trees, snow-covered hills, blue sky peppered with pillowy clouds. I am deeply moved. No way, no how can you start a day without a smile with this type of beginning.

Literacy

Kids read (period). They read literature or non-fiction every day in school, which seamlessly continues at home, over the weekend, vacations, and summer break. They don't shuffle between a D.E.A.R book, a reading book, and a literature circle book...they just read books and are held accountable for doing so through persistent teacher/student conferences and an intricate portfolio. Students at CTL learn to trust authors and realize that they have just as much to offer as a teacher. Through the "unpacking" and dissection of books and poems, students find craft, style, and techniques to use and explore in their own writing. Along with using authors and teachers as mentors, students use each other as writing coaches and partners. Choice, ownership, and responsibility are evident as students constantly draft, revise, edit, and publish pieces of writing in the school anthology, Acorns.

Content

Many schools and states claim they teach for deeper meaning and understanding. However, it's not evident with more topics being added to state and national standards, which only decreases the time spent studying each area. It just doesn't make sense. CTL's approach truly dunks its students in content areas by studying one topic per year in both Science and Social Studies. That's the whole school, my friends. The topics rotate every five years, so if a student begins in Kindergarten and ends in eighth grade, he/she will have studied two full years of a single topic. That's deep compared to maybe two months of a subject in a public school setting. Topics such as Geology, Ancient Civilizations, and 19th Century America are flexed to the level of each grade. According to Ted Demille "They're all a part of the club." You have first graders discussing geology with seventh graders-community built on common knowledge. And with all year to study a single topic there's no rush to cover the big ideas. For example, I witnessed first/second grade students engaged in volcano research. It wasn't just a fact hunt. They were in the beginning stages of mapping out their unit of study. It kind of looked like this:

  • The properties of a volcano: Science
  • Types of volcanoes: Science/Geography
  • Volcano Sketches: Art
  • Famous volcanoes: Culture and History

Like I said, it's deep and makes sense.

Philosophy: Deep and Meaningful

CTL's curriculum mirrors real life situations for all students and is implemented by a workshop approach. Each subject is given the appropriate time (each subject is allotted ninety minutes), space, and supplies, which creates a rich learning environment where an apprenticeship model flourishes. In the words of teacher Ted Demille, "I'm not the smartest person in the room (I don't know everything). I'm just the most experienced person in the room at the time offering skills, tools, and encouragement in hope that some day my students will surpass me." This is a selfless philosophy where students see the struggle and inner thoughts of the teacher, which creates a humanistic approach to education. It's Vygotskian: "Through others we discover ourselves."

How do I do this with twenty-five kids, right? An apprenticeship model looks and sounds a certain way. With twenty-five students it's not going to look the same (although class sizes at CTL are around seventeen -- not as big of a difference as I originally thought). Space can limit a workshop/apprenticeship model, but the underlying current of this philosophy is what it sounds like. It's a "problem-posing" critical education. This is what I heard at CTL: teacher and students co-creating knowledge through book discussions, writing conferences, and project-based learning pushing towards dual humanization -- empowerment and personal betterment for all participants. No class size or space should affect what's said in a classroom. Agreed?

Glue

CTL is not the only school on planet that operates on a "real-life-makes-sense" model. They are not the only school that utilizes the reading and writing workshop. They are not the only responsive school. However, what really solidifies the CTL is the fact that all students and teachers believe. They believe they are making a difference in the life of a child. They believe in a real philosophy that runs uniform throughout all grade levels. Nancie Atwell has given teachers and students a place to believe that dreams do come true with hard work, a sense of community, and valued individuality. It's life. It's CTL.

CTL's educational philosophy resonated with my own, but I also recognized many areas of self-improvement. I left the school with an increased responsibility to educate children the way they deserve to be educated. The question is just: how? How can I push my own philosophy of teaching closer to the purest model observed at CTL into a public school? I guess I had to ask myself, "How hard do you want to work, Gaetan? How much do you want it?" Anything worth doing is always hard, right?

I know most of us are attached to curriculums, standards, and state tests. But sometimes there's room to wiggle, room to fold in some of our own beliefs. That's how I approach teaching in a public school. The first step is believing. If you don't believe in a technique or philosophy, no matter what it is, it's not going to work. Once you believe, you can fill in the holes with personal ideas and theories that work for you. For example, when I returned from CTL I immediately adjusted my system to help kids personally choose books to read. I've also added reading and analyzing poetry as more of a standard practice to teach vocabulary, comprehension, and creative writing (not just a genre study). They are not drastic changes, just little adjustments to the system. "Believing" and small steps keep teaching and learning fluid and fresh. But remember, believing is the first step.

I'd love to hear how about the life-changing experience you have had, and how you've changed, tweaked or honed your own teaching style and philosophy. And how can we bring some of these practices to a public school setting? I hear so many teachers say, "I can't do [whatever it is that someone's doing on an independent school"] but I'd love to change that narrative to, "Here's what we CAN do!" Indeed, the smallest changes can sometimes have the biggest impact.

View pictures, blogs, and videos of my trip.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Gaetan,

Your journal writing and photographs and video create a wonderful personal real visit for us to share with you, thank you very much.

Yes, Maine is "off the urban charts"... those folks have an independent New England Spirit and live alive close with Nature and their rural community rhythms... Thoreau and Emerson come to mind...(for me...)

I followed the video clip several times, and noted in the Art Room that there seemed to be lots of student-made "puppets-in-progress"...? on the table by window...

I make puppets...that is one reason for my question... and did the teacher explain what these figures would be used as... for some group project (a puppet show? or diorama-type exhibit?, etc.) or are they individual figures for each student to determine its place and use...

Just curious, as a teacher/artist/craftsman/learner...

It is an inspirational school visit...
"The Old Country Schoolhouse"
where time is spent in a rocking chair...
thank you very much...

Allen Berg

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

Not sure what they were doing with the puppets. However, TEd Demille did visit the art room and discuss with his kids how the puppets/crafts could be used as a springboard/character in writing workshop. Thanks for the kind words.

LearnMeProject's picture

Thanks for the article Gaetan.

I homeschool my son because I believe in a similar "real-life-makes-sense" model. I'm not sure how it would translate to public school, at this point, but I'm sure we all could learn something from each other. http://learnmeproject.com/

Nicole Sickle's picture

Gaetan-
I am a grad student at the University of Florida majoring in Elementary Education and came across your blog while "discovering" Edutopia. I can relate to the things you've said you witnessed; all amazing ideas that I've read and explored through textbooks and articles, but sadly personally seen in very few classrooms. We have a developmental research school here in Gainesville, P.K. Yonge, that tries to accomplish many of the things you have spoken of and many of the ideas I've read about. Unfortunately, I've only had the opportunity of working there this semester for a very brief time, but I know of others who have interned in the school and witnessed the learning style and curriculum.
After reading your post, I can only dream of a school as amazing as CTL and possibly PK Yonge. However, I often find myself contemplating how to do this in a classroom and school that is run by programs, standards and state tests, like you mentioned. I've been taught about constructivist approaches and acting as a facilitator rather than a lead teacher, but when I visit classrooms, very little of this is visible.
I do think that many schools are trying to move in the right direction. When I grew up and before I started my program, I'd had never heard or seen things like morning meetings. Learning content in breath over depth definitely dominated my pre-collegiate education. Now I see morning meetings popping up in classrooms here and there. Nothing like a full school meeting to share ideas and work, but a little time set aside to build a classroom community and put value to each individual child that makes up part of the room. With my work at PK Yonge, I've noticed that unit topics are decreasing in number and going more in depth, but they are still nothing like one topic a year that integrates multiple subjects and skills into one conclusive project.
Nonetheless, I believe there is still room to hope and believe that they type of education you experienced will come around to schools everywhere. Of course, it will take very dedicated teachers and their outrageous visions, but I know more than a few who are willing to give it their best shot!

James Fedor's picture

Gaetan,
Thank you for sharing this with all of us. I have similar experiences with a few of these practices that have greatly enhanced and improved my overall teaching, one of which I would like to share with you. During a long-term substitute teaching assignment, I was exposed to a team-teaching setting at the middle school in which I worked. This team-teaching concept was brand-new, causing some unsettling feelings among my veteran colleagues, but those feelings quickly evaporated as the various strategies that the four core subject teachers used quickly melted into one "team style" that we were all able to utilize.

We had one period dedicated to intervention and enrichment. In this class, the first 20 minutes of each class was dedicated to silent, sustained reading, where the students read a book of their choice. We began to notice that we had to modify this 20 minute reading activity to an entire period once a week because the students enjoyed this activity so much.

I feel that your argument that students are constantly reading has been a paramount piece of this article, as my students showcased this during my long-term substitute assignment.

Once again, thank you for such a wonderful article!

gillettsd's picture

[quote]Gaetan-

I am a grad student at the University of Florida majoring in Elementary Education and came across your blog while "discovering" Edutopia. I can relate to the things you've said you witnessed; all amazing ideas that I've read and explored through textbooks and articles, but sadly personally seen in very few classrooms. We have a developmental research school here in Gainesville, P.K. Yonge, that tries to accomplish many of the things you have spoken of and many of the ideas I've read about. Unfortunately, I've only had the opportunity of working there this semester for a very brief time, but I know of others who have interned in the school and witnessed the learning style and curriculum.

After reading your post, I can only dream of a school as amazing as CTL and possibly PK Yonge. However, I often find myself contemplating how to do this in a classroom and school that is run by programs, standards and state tests, like you mentioned. I've been taught about constructivist approaches and acting as a facilitator rather than a lead teacher, but when I visit classrooms, very little of this is visible.

I do think that many schools are trying to move in the right direction. When I grew up and before I started my program, I'd had never heard or seen things like morning meetings. Learning content in breath over depth definitely dominated my pre-collegiate education. Now I see morning meetings popping up in classrooms here and there. Nothing like a full school meeting to share ideas and work, but a little time set aside to build a classroom community and put value to each individual child that makes up part of the room. With my work at PK Yonge, I've noticed that unit topics are decreasing in number and going more in depth, but they are still nothing like one topic a year that integrates multiple subjects and skills into one conclusive project.

Nonetheless, I believe there is still room to hope and believe that they type of education you experienced will come around to schools everywhere. Of course, it will take very dedicated teachers and their outrageous visions, but I know more than a few who are willing to give it their best shot![/quote]

How wonderful! I am a teacher in Gainesville and my children go to PK Yonge! I love that you were exposed to the differences between what the county requires and what PK can do. At my school I have to squeak in that "extra" between the pacing, weekly FCAT reading, and required testing. This year in 4th grade at PK, my son learned reading through exploring westward expansion! Amazingly, he still learned all his reading skills while coming home waxing on about Lewis and Clark! I hope to find a way use this method more in my own classroom, even with the limitations! GO Gators!

painter's picture
painter
visual arts instructor

Hello Gaetan,

I really enjoyed reading your blog entries and discovering different aspects to implement along with a refreshing outlook on education which I hope to incorporate within my classroom. I feel that unless we search when unfortunately placed in a isolated school environment one must reach out and look into other venues for help. Your writings have done this for me. This school seems like a wonderful place that strives to make learning more meaningful for it's students, and has their success and development held at a high standard for creating members that will be able to exist in the society that we will later inhabit. I feel that we are losing many of our learners' opportunities to become dependent members due to so much "hand holding" and not enough focus on accountability and responsibility. I feel so rushed to get units completed and have everyone on the same page no matter how much I try to focus on the process. I do not think a grade on "process" would stand with what I am expected to do. This article me reevaluate and want to slow things down and create a more calming environment. I also would like to work on making my students more responsible for the creation of their work. I think that the older grades I teach could create their own criteria, we could work together on in order to give them more say in the output of their art. I also like the idea of collaboration among the students in creating their final piece as seen with this school. I think that I would be able to modify this system to a degree, but to fully carry it out would not be able to happen where I am unless I looked to a private school. Keep up the great insights!

Stephanie's picture
Stephanie
Pre-K teacher from michigan

Dear Gaetan,
I loved reading your blog! CTL sounds like such an amazing school to be part of. Your blog reminded me of some of the amazing things that the school I teach at does. We have weekly assemblies that my principal presents to over 300 students multicultural songs, dance, books and life-skill lessons (with the help and supervision of our great para-educators!). During this time all the teachers in the building met to focus on transforming our curriculum to work towards becoming an "International Bacholorette School"(IB). Unfortunately due to cuts in funding we are not pursing IB this next year. I have learned so much through IB and working collaboratively with other teachers. I learned how meaningful and valuable it is to integrate curriculum and using what you called the "real life makes sense model" like you mentioned. Thanks again for sharing!

Stephanie's picture
Stephanie
Pre-K teacher from michigan

James Feder,
I like what you said about team teaching. I too have only had experiences team teaching as a long term sub. I loved the collaboration even though I felt vulnerable as a new teacher. I would like to see more team teaching in the lower elementary grades, I think each teacher has strengths they can share with their colleagues and other students. Last summer I read several great books about how to facilitate reading time. I'd highly recommend reading "The Daily 5" and "The Daily Cafe" by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser if you haven't already. Happy Reading!

Stephanie's picture
Stephanie
Pre-K teacher from michigan

Gaetan,
Do you have any recommendations for professional literature on "building a classroom community"?

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