Five Practices that Transformed My TeachingMarch 18, 2011 | Gaetan Pappalardo
"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!)
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 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.
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.
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?
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.