With the school year rapidly approaching, we’ve decided to highlight some other voices around the educational world. Here are some great thoughts from teacher extraordinaire Kimberely Gilles.
Education is Personal, Not Corporate
Okay, here’s my truth. Everything about education is personal. And that is exactly what the national dialogue about education – in it’s rush to embrace a corporate efficiency paradigm – lacks. Meaningful , powerful change is never going to happen because we are straining to become ”common” – Common Core Standards , common assessments, common disciplinary scripts. Especially if all this commonality is accompanied by common teaching … or worse. Education delivered in a one-size-fits-all model—and I say this as a plus-sized woman – will NEVER fit or flatter the contours of the individuals who tumble through my classroom doors every single day.
Do I believe that there are teachers out there who will have to turn themselves inside out in order to meet the goal of being common? Unfortunately, yes. And if being common is such a stretch for them, they are probably better suited for a different line of work. Do I believe that there is an army of highly educated young teachers lining up to step into the shoes of the teachers who can’t perform at minimum proficiency? Nope. But, there should be.
That’s another article.
Here’s what I think. I know more than the Common Core Standards require about getting young people to respond to literature in meaningful ways. I know more than the Common Core Standards require about getting young people to write their truths in creative and, yes, correct ways. For me, the Common Core Standards provide a description of the minimum I can do within one school year. They are NOT the heights to which I aspire. I can do better.
But none of what I know would matter if I didn’t get kids to buy into ME.
Students don’t decide, “I won’t learn to read.” They decide, “I won’t learn to read … from YOU.”
Like I said, it’s personal.
So, what do I avoid? Trying to be cool. Sarcasm. Unpredictability. Dressing like my students. Grading as payback. Trying to be their friend. Assuming that they will follow my instructions just because I am the teacher.
Being a teacher is not a role I assume; it is who I am.
So, how do I get them to decide that they WILL learn from me? Humor. Knowledge. Reliability. Sincerity. Creativity. Empathy. Liberal doses of righteous indignation. Quirkiness. Curiosity. Assigning homelearning that visibly attaches to what is being learned in the classroom. Forgiveness. Admitting when I’m wrong. Apologizing when I screw up. Authenticity. Good manners. Good grooming. Good lesson plans.
The lesson plans are key. Lesson planning is the process by which I customize education for the particular combination of students who show up on my roll sheet. I aspire to being uncommon – in the best sense of that word. I have been known to teach an entire unit with only one or two students in my mind and heart.
One year, I embarked upon directing 7th graders in The Taming of the Shrew when I had a gifted student who was profoundly dyslexic and dysgraphic. Reading and writing left him flushed and failing. But there was nothing wrong with his ability to understand or speak. I had recently read that Howard Gardner believed that drama was the only discipline that used every intelligence. So, undaunted by the fact that I had never been in a play, but armed with a deep love of Shakespeare and young people, I directed twelve year olds in The Taming of the Shrew. We made a pact – we would put on a play IF the guys agreed to wear tights and stage make-up. (No modern staging or language for me. We were going full-Elizabethan. The play was abridged, but it was all-Shakespeare.) To my surprise, every boy agreed to my terms. I was stuck! (Most challenging moment? Realizing that the very first kiss my Petruchio and Katarina would experience would be in the play. And, as it is the highlight of the play, we had to make it a lo-o-ong kiss. Unbeknownst to the audience, Katarina would count five with her fingers along Petruchio’s back. They only had to kiss for a five-count. This is especially poignant when you picture my Katarina with a full set of braces. Welcome to middle school!) The student for whom I directed the play never knew that this entire unit was designed for him. He didn’t have to; it no longer mattered. Everyone was too busy memorizing lines! Of course, I had to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year! (And for all of you who follow this blog, you should know that Matt Amaral’s mother Kathy, was my costume designer. Her living room was swamped by discount fabrics and middle-school-student-sized tunics, gowns, veils, and aprons.)
Another year, I found myself facing a 7th grade Latino gangsta-wannabe who was wicked smart and completely uninspired by my conventional curriculum. Luckily, I stay current with young adult fiction and orphan genres. I decided to teach a fantasy novel, Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. My students studied Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” through “film as modern mythology.” It wasn’t long before my gangsta-wannabe and his homeboys were MINE. There was nothing more important to them than learning how boys become real men. Not only did they read and appreciate Wizard of Earthsea with it’s protagonist who discovers that the true villain is within himself , they went on to read all four sequels. (Which meant I had to read all four sequels so that they would keep talking to me at lunch and afterschool.) I’m telling you, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer just wasn’t gonna cut it.
And did I mention that they posed no discipline problems the rest of the year?
At least not for me.
All this curriculum means that I am unconstrained by the curriculum that is available “out there.” I would never refuse to teach the perfect book because no pre-fab curriculum existed. Heck no! I write my own! I’ve written my own curriculum for teaching A Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Nectar in a Sieve, The Laramie Project, and a poetry unit integrating art and technology for seniors based upon poems I chose based upon my understanding of who was in that particular class.
Note that I do not try to be a friend. I am a teacher with a deep love of ideas who believes that students are entitled to a wide entrance into the world of the mind. My students already have friends – plural. But each year, they only have one English teacher. I fill a peculiar, wonderful niche in their lives. It’s more important than “friend” because, if I play my cards right, I will ascend to the heights of full-blown mentor.
If you think being a teacher is a lot of responsibility, wait until your students select you as a confidante/truth-teller/guide. It’s moving and exhausting.
And it’s the crucial step to being let into their jokes, their fears, their tragedies, their dreams, their futures, their lives.
Once you’re in, they will learn anything … from YOU.
Kimberley Gilles is beginning her 27th year in a classroom. She has taught English, history, art, and education to students ranging from third graders to grad students. She has taught in public schools and private schools, middle schools and high schools, urban schools and suburban schools, an alternative school and a charter school, night school and summer school. She has taught students of all abilities and grade levels and then some. She holds an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction with an specialization in Integration of the Arts. She has been recognized for excellence in teaching by U.C. Berkeley’s Bay Area Writing Project and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. In 2012 she was awarded the California Teacher Association’s Members Human Rights Award. She was also Matt Amaral’s 7th grade Core humanities teacher.