Sharing stories about teaching, engaging, part II
This series was inspired by a desire to give a different response to the Inquirer‘s "Assualt on Learning" series. We encourage other teachers to share their stories of learning and success. We hope that these stories can help the public re-imagine what makes teaching such an important vocation. It would be wonderful to read snapshots from your classroom that reflect the real work of teaching and learning in the comments section of this series. Let’s hear all about it.
Geoff: What were some early experiences that really got you excited about teaching?
Christina: I learned how to teach by teaching with and watching other teachers.
I began teaching in 1998, and landed at a jewel of a neighborhood school, Sheppard Elementary School in West Kensington, as a bilingual Learning Support teacher. Sheppard is the kind of school where you can open a classroom window and greet the day with a wave from a student’s older sister, primo, tía, or tío. The school has seen everything. If those walls could talk, they would hold you there captive with a million spinning realities, good and bad times. My understanding of teaching as cultural work took root here, at the corner of Howard and Cambria.
Geoff: How did collegiality help you become part of the school community?
Christina: The school had just been at the heart of a community organizing struggle to get the school designated “bilingual.” This was not an easy time for many people, while for others the bilingual designation was a vital access point for academic success. I made a connection right away with a veteran teacher, Ms. Holmes, who was so jazzed up about teaching that her organizational skills and her creativity were infectious. The speech teacher and I would co-teach every week. I learned about the intersection of language and learning from the bilingual teaching team. Collegiality was central to my survival as a new teacher.
Later, in other schools, I knew I would be a better teacher if I connected with others. From my experience, schools that have the most success with student achievement are also the ones where teachers plan together with some degree of agency. At FACTS, for example, the Learning Support team planned closely with the ESL team around student support to make learning come alive for everyone.
Geoff: Were there any teacher networks that enhanced your ability to connect with and teach diverse learners?
Christina: I attended Thursday meetings of the Philadelphia Teachers’ Learning Cooperative (PTLC). My practices were shaped by the inquiry work I did with this community. The group’s work is centered around processes from Patricia Carini and others at the Prospect Center as a way to focus on children and teachers and our classroom practices.
For example, through a descriptive inquiry of a child’s work one afternoon with PTLC, what was at first a highly troubled child, causing havoc and destruction in my classroom (actually, stuck his tongue in an electric socket on that particular afternoon) became a teller of complex and layered stories.
During the review of work, PTLC teachers described his classwork, looking deeply at his drawings and respecting the work in a way I had never seen before in my life. First impressions were followed by rounds of describing the drawings without judgment, and that was followed by rounds of looking for patterns and ways the child was using the medium.
The way I taught that child changed after that afternoon, and the way I talked about him at school also changed. I saw him as capable, a decision maker. His language and communication skills improved dramatically that year, and his love of books and stories went with him when he transferred to a new school the following year.
Geoff: Talk about the ways in which PTLC helped you think about curriculum.
Christina: Besides allowing me to “see” the child’s possibilities, this group also impacted what I had in my classroom. Blocks, silkworms, monarch butterflies, paper bag and accordion books made by hand, gingerbread houses, music, drama, poetry, balances and scales, puppets… I was then and still am a rigorous teacher, rigorous about academics and rigorous about emotional health and teacher/student creativity. The impact of PTLC on my practices is still evident today. You can tell what I value by looking at my classroom. I can tell what my students value by looking closely at their work. There is room for the child and the teacher to be human in my classroom, to explore, make, and find important things out.