Monday, March 5, 2018

Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and Teaching West Virginia

The recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia has me thinking about my Grandmother, Mercia Dunmire. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Monongah, West Virginia, a community framed by mountains and mines, teaching the children of coal miners and subsistence farmers in a multi-grade classroom. As family mythology tells it, after noticing children coming to school hungry, Grandma Mercia organized an effort to feed everyone every day. Parents who could do so donated from their gardens and pantries, and older students cooked lunch, learning to prepare food and sustain the group by working and eating together. In the guise of a daily home economics lesson, Grandma Mercia’s students learned service and community, caring for each other as an act of equity. She fed others’ children even while she struggled to feed her own, racking up debt for groceries on credit at Manchins’ store after her husband died, sealed in a fire-filled mine. Grandma Mercia was like that--she saw opportunities out of need and struggled to help her students in ways beyond teaching them to write and read. She filled my shelves with books, but, more importantly, she influenced me to be aware in the world, to see and struggle against injustice, and to teach.
Mercia Dunmire in her first year of teaching, 1929.

In 2007, I represented West Virginia as our state’s Teacher of the Year, attending several events and conferences where teachers from all US states and territories gathered together to learn from each other and raise our collective voice. At one of our events, we dressed to represent our home states. Given that so many recognizable costumes related to West Virginia are caricatures grounded in stereotype, I wanted to choose a memorable and impactful way of representing our heritage and history. I dressed as Mother Jones. I pulled my hair in a bun and donned a black dress and wire rim glasses. I carried a sign marked with her words: “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” I found myself explaining many times who she was, what she meant to miners, what she meant to West Virginia, and what she meant to me. Like Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones taught me through her legacy about how to be in the world.

Today, I’m thinking of Grandma Mercia, Mother Jones, and teaching in West Virginia. Today, teachers are picketing and rallying, closing down the schools for the 8th day in a row, fighting to raise pay from 48th in the nation and for adequate healthcare for all public employees (myself included, since I’ve moved to the university classroom). Today, our governor owes more in back taxes than a teacher will see in a lifetime, our state legislature refused to pass a severance tax that could fund public health insurance, and a coal boss runs for senate with the blood of 29 miners on his hands; our world doesn’t look much different now than it did 100 years ago, echoing with injustice. Today, it’s our teachers, red bandanas around their necks and holding signs, who are waging the fight, yet they are still caring for students, even out of the classroom: packing lunches, spreading word about how we can help through organizations like Morgantown’s Pantry Plus More who are feeding students while they’re out of school.

These are my thoughts and my experiences, but I know they resonate with other teachers. This is just my story, except when it’s not. I can see, in this moment, that West Virginia teachers are standing in the light of Grandma Mercia and Mother Jones. Whether she is a hellraiser heroine on the picket line or an everyday activist peeling potatoes for the soup, a West Virginia teacher is an agent of change and a fierce advocate for students. And, at the heart of it all, is literacy. Reading is revolution. Writing is power. We must remember, as Mother Jones said, “reformation, like education, is a journey.” Teachers do the work of progress every day, in and out of the classroom. Especially in this moment, our teachers are educating us: these strike days are readings in civic literacy, in social movements, in what it means to be a West Virginian. The teachers walk the line, writing the people’s history, and we are students, all.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Why I #LoveTeaching: It’s About Finding Flow

When everyone is working toward the same goal, in the same space, a room throbs. The space hums. The activity doesn’t matter so much as the intentionality: to concentrate effort and become a part of a process of meaningful work. The energy moves into flow. I have experienced flow in all kinds of learning situations—both as a student and as a teacher (I am always a learner, in whatever role). I have felt it in yoga classes, while working in gardens, doing service work building houses, in book groups, in writers’ workshops, in professional development. It happens to me alone, too, when I write, when I run or hike, sometimes when I cook.   

This sense of engaged awareness, lack of distraction, a distorted sense of time, loss of self-consciousness —humming along with the work and with others—these are qualities that characterize flow experience. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1996) flow involves deep immersion in an activity, producing feelings of success and competence, sometimes joy. We know it when we feel it.  

I love teaching for many reasons, but I love teaching best when flow happens in my classroom. I have experienced this shared energy in a silent session of independent reading or writing: the only sounds may be pages turning, pencils moving, or keys clicking, but the palpable vibration is there, collecting in the spaces between us.  I have experienced it in discussions: insights are almost visible as they zing around the room, one speaker building upon the ideas she has just heard, passing her insight like a ball of fire to the next speaker. Faces open, alight, eyes widen, voices catch—“ah ha!”—in moments of realization. “We’re getting it; we understand!” When it happens during class, the bell will come as a surprise, and students may say “Class went by so fast today!”

I can’t force flow in my teaching, and I can’t pretend to know how it works, but when it happens, I always just let it. I do believe there are conditions I can create in order to find flow. I can help students to feel comfortable by honoring their expertise and voices, giving them opportunities to take ownership of their own thinking, offering choices of meaningful work, and being there to guide their inspiration—and I think setting these intentions helps. I can’t predict it, though, and when the magic begins to happen, the best I can do is ride along on the waves, even if it interferes with my lesson plan or curriculum schedule.

When a classroom is humming with flow experience—when my students and I are positioned as fellow learners, breathing and growing together, I feel read and whole, as if I am doing my life’s work. And I think my students feel it, too. Even when it happens only rarely, flow experience keeps me engaged—it’s the heart of my practice, and why I love teaching.    

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: Harper Collins.  

A note: this post is my contribution to the #LoveTeaching Campaign, a celebration of teacher love during Valentine's Week, 2015. Information is available here

Friday, February 6, 2015

Context Matters

This week, I asked my preservice English teacher students to think about context.  When I did, I meant for them to think about contexts for learning inside their classrooms as they begin to design unit plans for the middle school students with whom they are working. Because I am writing with my students, I planned to blog about our classroom context, too, but I find myself struggling with the larger sense of context—sense of place and space that shapes who we are and what we know.

For example, when I taught public school in Morgan County, West Virginia, my students there (and I, too) were set in a particular context. It was a fairly rural community, so we might see deer on the hillside behind the school or a heron in the run that flowed through campus. A student might bring me a bag of morels in April or venison jerky in November. Berkeley Springs is also an art town, so we might make art in English class, or students might be involved in local productions of Shakespeare plays. The blend of rurality and creativity meant that I needed to consider a spectrum of diverse needs in my classroom: in the same class, I might have a student who brought me a gift from her trip to France, as well as a student who needed explicit instructions on using crosswalks during a field trip to DC.  

In a small town it was easy to connect the community to the curriculum. My colleagues and I worked to bring county residents—writers, artists, legislators, educators, and officials into our classrooms. We also worked to bring our students out into the county to find learning there—in one interdisciplinary course that I helped to co-teach, we took our students to the recycling center, to the local soup kitchen, to the new courthouse construction site, and elsewhere out into the community to serve and learn, applying content in context.

This kind of learning that is centered in the particular of space and setting is explored in the work of David Sobel, The Place Based Education Collaborative, Foxfire, and others. They tell us that context matters—that people, place, and meaning-making are intertwined. We can help students understand the world if we emplace their learning in a context.

Now, in suburban Atlanta, I have to admit that I feel a bit out of context, myself. I get lost easily, and not in a meaningful way, driving past WalMart after strip mall after Target after strip mall and on into the city. The highway overpasses and four lanes of traffic offer little sense of community or purpose—except to keep moving past exits to the right and the trash in the median on the left. When I think about my students, I wonder about the contexts from which they view this world, how this context shapes the questions they ask, what they need to be taught. I wonder how to connect them to a context that I have yet to begin to adjust to or to understand myself. There must be a community at the center of this suburbia—in order to really teach and learn in a way that connects me to my students and to a clear sense of purpose and place, I know I must find it. I just need to keep exploring. Perhaps, if I ask, my students can help me to do that. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Engaging the Interconnectedness Between Reading and Writing (an Article Analysis)

In my English content methods class this week, I have asked my students to think about the connections possible between reading and writing as processes, and to do some reading from one artifact in the National Writing Project’s resource archive on Writing to Read. Because I’m reading and writing with them, I am sharing my thoughts on a piece from the collection, too. I read “Style Study: One Connection Between Reading and Writing” by Rebekah Caplan. Published in 1987, this piece predates my own teaching career, but it has resonance for me as a teacher of teachers and as a teacher of writing. It rings true to some of my own high school classroom teaching practices—and offers ideas which maintain currency even today. Caplan’s short article provides me with a clear reminder of the interconnectedness of reading and writing—and how teachers must make those connections explicit in ways that students can apply and use.

Caplan elaborates on ways she merges writing and reading practices in a unit on The Great Gatsby. She outlines several activities for student writing and response, including one in which students create “showing paragraphs” from “telling sentences,” an activity that I used when I taught ninth grade English and still use in developmental composition courses. Caplan also elaborates on how she asks students to emulate Fitzgerald’s style, moving from mimicry to analysis, and developing their own styles along the way.  

The first important take-away, for me, relates to the way Caplan provides opportunities for students to learn how to give and get feedback. When Caplan’s students compose and share aloud their short, “showing paragraphs,” they hear from their teacher the language of response, and they are able to draw evidence from one another’s’ texts to support their thinking about quality writing.
It strikes me that learning to give feedback using short, exploratory pieces, which are lower investment for students, bridges the way into feedback for works in which students are more personally invested. The opportunity to practice helpful peer feedback with short responses, rather than with long, more personally relevant pieces, can help novice writers better understand what kind of commentary is helpful and appropriate in a low-stakes way. Over the course of the unit, then, students move from analysis of Gatsby to personal reflection writing that explores some of the text’s themes in their own lives. Allowing students the opportunity to practice writing in “new and different ‘voices’” helps them to hone and develop their own styles. Additionally, it allows them to go deeply into understanding the style of the works they read. 

The second important idea that grows out of my reading of this piece relates to the kind of co-created meaning that discussions about literature can so fruitfully foster. Caplan describes in detail the ways she helps students to analyze Gatsby by stepping back and allowing students to lead the learning. When confusion arises, “instead of giving them the answer,” Caplan asks the group, and when one student elaborates his understanding, it becomes “a learning experience for those who don’t understand.” In this way, the discussion evolves so that “one student’s insight has influenced another’s thinking and ultimate understanding of the passage.”   

What I love most about this article is the way Caplan seamlessly moves students through the interconnected processes of reading, writing, and thinking. Students mirror Fitzgerald’s style and structure patterns (Caplan gives explicit examples from Gatsby and from student work) and in doing so, they engage as writers themselves, reading, processing, internalizing, and producing texts of their own that are both interpretive and exploratory, revealing something about style and understanding, providing insight into the craft of writing and the understanding of a reading. Reading this piece makes me want to teach Gatsby again, just to try out Caplan’s techniques. 

Caplan, R. “Style Study: One Connection Between Reading and Writing.” Writing to Read: A Collection of NWP Articles. National Writing Project, 13 May 2010. Web. 26 Jan. 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Returning to Teaching Methods and to My Adolescent Self

Happy New Year! It is a new year, and I am finally working with pre-service teachers in a methods course in my new (as of August) position at Georgia Gwinnett College. After a semester of teaching first year and developmental writing courses, I am ready to work with teacher candidates again. It feels like a homecoming and a return to who I am as a learner, too. Since I am asking my students to blog, I am blogging with them, instead of writing freshman comp essays with my novice writers.

During our first class session last week, my co-teacher and I asked our groups of preservice teachers to think about who they were at 12 years old—the point at which, for most adolescents, adult personalities and self-concepts are beginning to cement. A range of responses followed this reflection. Some were quiet, shy book lovers, and others were trying on multiple identities, looking for a sense of place. Others were listeners; some were arguers. Some were guided by great English teachers, yet others watched as teachers explicitly didn’t teach.

Of course, this discussion made me reflect upon my own path to the classroom. I turned 12 in September of my seventh grade year. Seventh grade marked a turning point for me in many different ways—developmentally, socially, physically, intellectually. Seventh grade was the year I learned to hate school. I found boys, cliques, algebra, and many other frustrating things.  I lost my academic confidence and my voice. I wanted to be invisible, and I watched more visible girls be tortured by gangs of ponytailed bullies in designer jeans. I watched teachers watch this too—and do nothing.

During my seventh grade year, reading, which had been a source of pleasure for me, became a site of refuge, and I learned to hide in books, which is one of the ways I managed to make it through the awkward and painful years of secondary school. I have a vivid memory of a day in junior year English class, American literature. The teacher was reading to us, line-by-line, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. She leaned into the lectern, her glasses slipping down her nose, reading and interpreting, sentence by sentence. I sat about two rows back from the front, my textbook propped in my lap. Tucked inside my textbook was a novel that my teacher could not see, and as she lectured on, I lost myself in the book, just as she was losing herself in her own reading of Edwards. No one else was there.

I didn’t know I would be a teacher in seventh grade or in high school, but when I began my teacher training years later, I thought back mostly on the kinds of teachers I didn’t want to be. Some of my students during our first session expressed this, but others spoke of teachers who changed their lives. Still, all of us, somehow, whether by the guidance of a brilliant teacher or the lack of teacher role models, have ended up on the path to teaching, themselves. And I get to watch them get there.

This week, I have asked my students to blog about their own reading and writing (which I do here). I am looking forward to hearing about how they became the readers and writers they are, and I am looking forward to seeing the teachers they become. An exciting way to begin the semester: new beginnings for a new year.