Shortly before planning this lesson I had been reading Anne Ediger’s article “Developing strategic L2 readers…by reading for authentic purposes.” While reading the article I became aware that I hadn’t yet deliberately and explicitly taught my students metacognitive or cognitive reading strategies. Perhaps in some cases I have stumbled upon a strategy that I understood intuitively and then clumsily in the moment made an effort to share that knowledge with my students. However, I had never—until I planned the lesson for this observation—deliberately designed a lesson focused on teaching strategic reading. Truly, upon reading this article I realized that most of the strategies mentioned within it were known to me intuitively but were learned so many years ago I failed to recognize that they are teachable skills. Now that it’s May…. Thus is the process of a fellow?
Inspired by Ediger’s article I decided to return to Brown’s Teaching by Principles to reread the chapter on teaching reading. In particular, I wanted to revisit the micro- and macro-skills mentioned in that text. Suddenly, I felt the space and the compulsion to design a lesson that was guided by theory and research. This, in my opinion, demonstrates some type of growth—but oh, G-d how much more I have to learn. I settled on two foci for the lesson: a macro-strategy (reading for a specific purpose—i.e., to learn how many people in the Global Village have access to clean air and water) and a micro-strategy (using a discourse marker—‘while’ in comparative constructions—to help interpret the text).
Ediger’s article begins by stating, “Learning to read is a type of problem solving…” (2006, p 1). As I made my way through that first sentence my students appeared in my mind’s eye, hunched over their New York State ELA exams with furrowed brows trying to make sense of passages that stumped many native English speakers who were previously thought to be reading on or above grade level. As I continued the article I asked myself, “Which of these strategies—if any—have I seen my colleagues teaching when I push in to their classrooms?” It continued, as I pored through the article my mind went on a journey revisiting classroom encounters, school visits, conversations with colleagues, moments in which I skimmed through this or that book.
A sort of pedagogical pastiche took form to show me—with absolute certainty—that I need to pick up my game and develop a much more deliberate and informed approach to my planning. I simply do not know enough about language, literacy, or instructional strategies that work. I have survived until now on intuition, raw intellect, and a big arse dollop of Grace. Moving forward, this will not suffice and so I am looking forward to this summer during which I hope to synthesize the experiences I had throughout the school year with the information I’ve learned in my coursework.
Theory and research are wonderful—indeed, I’d be happy to immerse myself in academic articles for days, weeks, or months on end. Real kids with their own diverse needs, personalities, and moods demand more than plans guided by theory. They need a teacher who is present, mindful, prepared, and flexible. My delivery—because I was being observed—was complicated by anxiety. Essentially, the specter of $%*#’s scowl is a heavy presence in any space in which I’m observed. It’s as if a chanting chorus is standing, swaying, heckling in increasing volume “U…U…U…U…U…U…U….” Deep in my gut there is a gnawing fear that I am a complete fraud, a failure, a terrible teacher. In the moments I am free from this phantom, magic can happen. It doesn’t always happen but it sometimes does. When the phantom is present, I am changeable, nervous, and I tend to abandon my plan. This is what happened during this observation.
I emailed my final lesson plan to my mentor around 8:30pm the night before my observation. I had mailed another draft earlier in the week but decided to make some revisions and resend it. She suggested that I think of ways to push students to move up the DOK matrix by asking higher-level questions. Trigger phrase. I panicked and essentially reworked my lesson—and in large part abandoned the careful thought I’d put into the original plan—to ensure that I do something to check that higher-order-thinking box. Thus, I spoiled what could have been a strong lesson by allowing my plan to be rewritten by a knee-jerk reaction grounded in fear. After the observation my mentor and I discussed the lesson. When I explained to her what my original intention was (the macro- and micro-strategies mentioned above) and how in response to her feedback I had made certain changes she clarified for me that her feedback was meant to be food for thought for the unit as a whole and not a directive to revise my plan. Luckily, I was able to reteach the original lesson to another group of students a few days later. In its original form it was successful—the students walked away feeling empowered. Too, I was careful to emphasize to the students that we were learning a reading strategy to help us cope with reading passages that may be difficult for us to approach. They actually sang “Yay!”
After our debrief I felt much more relaxed—it was clear to me that my mentor is committed to helping me develop my practice and that it is not her wish or need to tear me down. She is rigorous for sure but she is also humane, dignified, and loving. I am so grateful to work with a mentor who is a builder rather than a breaker. She helped me to dissolve some of that scar tissue that is very much leaning into my practice—especially when I am being evaluated—and I am grateful for that. She also took the time to read through my case study notes to give me feedback, advice, and encouragement for my work with J. In this observation—each step in the process—I recognized that I am not a brilliant, experienced educator who ‘has arrived’ but this recognition was accompanied ultimately with self-forgiveness, compassion, and permission to take time and space to grow. I know the potential lives inside me. I know I have the capacity to make it bloom. I now am prepared to give myself permission be precisely where I am right now: imperfect, searching, and practicing with the full force of my heart, intellect, and intention. I am learning and at times I teach.