Eight Educators Speak: Teaching and Learning Beyond the Content

​Eight English educators- from first-year to veteran leaders- attended the 2013 VASCD Conference together. Read their powerful reflections here. 

As I engaged my thoughts at the 2013 VASCD conference, I was reminded of the varied experiences I've had with teaching and learning. I remembered the ways my elementary school teachers made learning fun, even the memorization of math facts! I recalled high school teachers who introduced me to literature I still love, and college professors who prepared me to be a teacher. I reflected on my own years as a classroom teacher, which shaped my approach to my current leadership role.  The most significant understanding that has emerged for me from all these experiences and perspectives is the centrality of the student. The VASCD conference reinforced this, and stretched participants to think about it in new ways.   From the conference's keynote speakers to the teacher experts offering break-out sessions on current trends from STEM to “flipping” to student-led conferences, a unifying call to educators emerged across the sessions, a call to teach to the whole child.   We were called upon to remain mindful of the diverse perspectives of the learners in our schools and the need to approach change as an opportunity to make a difference for all of our students. We engaged in dialogue, privately and collaboratively, to challenge our current ways of thinking.  How do we as professionals continually question our practices in light of new research, new technologies, or new standards?  How do we determine which practices will endure when we recognize who we teach is as important as what or how we teach?

Beyond the speakers and presenters, my race horse experience made me turn my attention to the teachers in room.  Our VBCPS English family was a large presence at the conference.  For three days a smile spread across my face as I eavesdropped on their conversations which were filled with excitement and possibility.  Here were the voices of teachers who do not vehemently defend time-honored practices; rather, they question their current methods with a willingness to adjust when necessary.  Here were the voices of teachers who open their minds to the possibilities posed by new research, new technologies, and new sources of inspiration.  

And now, here are the voices of a group of professionals eager to share their reflections on the conference with the hope of spreading their enthusiasm and commitment beyond the conference walls. 

     -Robin Hoffman, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

We went to school. We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought … Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we were taught to exclude them. It’s as if we entered school as a question mark … and graduated as a period (quote from Rick Wormeli’s slide).

I felt the wind go out of me when I read this. As a teacher, I’m mortified by these words, especially when I think this could have been spoken by my students over the years. When Rick paused with these words looming over the audience, I actually felt sick to my stomach. Is this really what school is all about? Transforming students into declarations of sameness? Have I been contributing to this? My mind immediately raced to the sub plans I left behind for my 11th graders that afternoon. Just the day before, I had been so proud to leave on my teacher desk a tidy subfolder of organized sheets with assignments carefully crafted that included a precise time allotment for each activity with accompanying rubric for the grades. Is that really what school is all about to me: keeping order, creating systems of data-collection, distributing assignments, giving grades? Here’s the dirty little question that Rick Wormeli’s keynote ultimately made me face: Have I been playing the game of school, as opposed to teaching? Rick Wormeli’s keynote was a wake-up call to me to unpack my own thinking about learning and embrace a new “question journey” instead of the all-too-comfortable “answer chase.” I couldn’t wait to get back to my kids and start this question journey with them by resolving to bring a model of inquiry, of questioning, of thinking into my classes. Educators all know that students construct knowledge when it is relevant to them, when they have a real and authentic purpose but why had I not paid attention to the teaching opportunities that reside in the nooks and crannies of each individual learner’s process? This is now where you’ll find me at my most deliberate state since the VASCD conference. I’m getting to know my kids by “jumping into the pit” – as Rick called it – with them. Knowing my students means I must know how they learn, the kind of feedback they need to grow in their question journey, when to nurture them, and when to step aside. My most intense teaching these days seems to happen in the least obvious places. It’s in the conferences I have with students about their literary analysis; it’s when I spend the block questioning, probing, supporting the ideas that might guide a particular project; it’s in the think-aloud I do after I realize students didn’t “get it” the block before. I want my kids to take intellectual risks, so I’m now giving them chances to fail and re-do. I will use assessment to scaffold progress, not to debilitate learners. I’m learning that learning doesn’t require a bold pen; rather, it begs for the community space of Edmodo, Google Drive, and Twitter. It means that I struggle each day to see students as individuals, to know their stories of learning well enough that I don’t have to talk about grades at conferences. I can talk about my students’ growth, and I can talk about their “question journeys.” It means I am exhausted but I am not burned out. I am not burned out because I am not succumbing to a pattern based on answers but rather on the questions that drive my students and me to wonder. So allow me to wonder (and wander) a bit along my own question journey: What if making a mistake became the new teaching and learning? What if we were to stop “teaching” our kids out of their creativity and start fostering it instead? What if we start rewarding a process instead of an absolute answer? What if we stop acting as though everyone were the same and start acting upon our understanding that it’s the differences that will ultimately move our students towards self-actualization? This – I know for sure – is the breath of fresh air that all of us in education desperately need. 

     -Carrie Gantt, English Teacher, Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

I have attended numerous conferences, local, state and national, but none have been as powerful and evocative as the VA ASCD that I recently attended in Williamsburg.  I laughed . . . I cried . . . and I reflected on my journey to becoming the teacher I am today.  I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly --- yes, I own all of it.  Once thing I know for sure from all that I experienced in those two short days is that I, like my students, am a work in progress;  I am a valuable person in an organic learning community, and I should treat my students as they are co-members -- we are in this together!

This rekindled sense of wonderment and awe about teaching and learning transcends any discipline and reaffirms for me that the reciprocal struggle, appreciation and celebration that my students and I acknowledge for each other is at the heart of every day in our classroom whether we are reading, writing, listening, or performing.  When my students “get it” and become excited about what they have achieved, I, in turn, find more energy and enthusiasm to help them reach even farther and “get” even more.  We get caught up in the cycle and only stop when time runs out in June.  Even though I have to mine through reams of paper, I do discover the gold in what they do on a daily basis.

While I have not been too specific as to the teaching of English, I have to say that the conference was about the bigger picture—it was about making all teachers realize why they chose this profession and that we truly blessed to call ourselves educators.

     -Connie Solheim, English Teacher, Princess Anne Middle School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Being a first year teacher, it was an honor to attend the VASCD conference—even if I was just able to attend one day.  Listening to Carol Tomlinson’s approach to and ideas about differentiation was exactly what I needed.  Instead of viewing differentiation as another thing to check off my to-do list, I now see it as the only way to form my instructional thinking.  

The real impact of Tomlinson’s presentation came with her dissection of standards as the ingredients, not the meal.  In true former English teacher fashion, she translated the education terminology into something that ANYONE can understand—and agree with.  By thinking of the Standards of Learning in this way, we can see that simply serving SOLs to students is like throwing a package of raw hamburger on the table in front of guests.  This was the most impactful analogy I’ve heard; why should I expect my students to gobble up standards without any relation to their lives outside of the classroom?  Instead of only giving them the standards, I now understand that students need the whole meal; a safe environment, differentiated instruction, appropriate assessment, and a strong curriculum. 

     -Kara Kimball, English Teacher, Kempsville High School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

After the opportunity to attend the VASCD conference, there is one thing I know for sure about teaching my students; it is absolutely key that you develop and maintain a relationship with your students in which they know you believe in their success.  The money, technology, curriculum and mandatory testing will never make as much progress in a student’s education as the support and encouragement they receive and feel from a teacher who cares about their success.  VASCD keynote speaker, Scott Habeeb, spoke about the idea of teaching beyond the content.  He encourages teachers to not only teach the content but also to mold students into having growth mindsets.  A student who believes they can overcome adversities will be more successful not only in the classroom but in their future.  Because of his presentation, I now show positive quotes or pictures as bell ringers to get my students writing and discussing how they may apply to their own lives. In each subsequent class, I have received more thoughtful participation and enthusiasm as the students try to determine my purpose for showing the picture or quote. These activities allow an opportunity for students to share their own experiences and give me a chance to express my support. 

     -Jenna Walsh, English Teacher, Virginia Beach Middle School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

I just want someone to challenge the education status quo and Dr. Rick Wormeli says it’s reasonable to do so. That’s what I needed to hear. So much of what I learned at the conference was what I needed to hear. If I already knew it, I was glad to have my awareness refreshed. 

When for example the fill-in keynote speaker, Scott Habeeb, said that in teaching we have to be more proactive than reactive, that was an affirmation for me. Carol Ann Tomlinson was another keynote speaker who talked of differentiation in practical terms. Her idea of effective differentiation in lessons is to be proactive-which she defines as being planned ahead with options, whereas most people misinterpret differentiation as more reactive-having one lesson plan and adjusting as you go. That statement provided me with so much clarity about this often overused and misunderstood term. The keynote speakers were excellent and such a bonus of the conference; every one was better than the last.

One of the workshops at the conference I was excited to attend was “Technology and Language Arts.”  I have to say that I was not disappointed. The delivery was excellent and engaging and I had to rush back to my classroom to implement these new ideas immediately. A paperless classroom? Yes! It can be done. 

Because of my attitude of rejuvenation and affirmation, the conference was valuable to me, my students, and my fellow educators with whom I share my new knowledge.

     -Barbara Butler, English Teacher, Brandon Middle School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

After being a teacher for 25+ years, I find that professional development for me needs to feed my soul and inspire me to continue to challenge myself in my remaining decade in the classroom more so than adding to my overflowing “bag of tricks” of instructional strategies.  I am at the point in my career that I deliver professional development on best practices in models and strategies and what I know to work with different levels of students—so my approach to learning for myself needs to be one of “alignment” of my own goals and vision to that of my division and administrators.  The VASCD conference provided me with great “food for thought.”

In all of my years of attending the VASCD Fall Conferences, this year’s was definitely the best that I have attended—ever.  The keynote speakers and their break-out sessions truly resonated with me and gave me numerous points to ponder upon return to my school in Virginia Beach.  I thoroughly enjoyed Rick Wormeli’s presentations as he is one of my favorite professional authors and many departments in my building have adopted standards-based grading.  Annette Breaux and Scott Habeeb reminded me about why I love working with children and how we must truly love them.  However, Dave Weber’s message from his presentation and subsequent break-out session on leadership has echoed within me the most as I contemplate my role as a middle school gifted resource teacher and teacher-leader in my building.

One of Weber’s “X’s” of success for today’s leader is to examine everything because we see what we expect to see.  A personal goal of mine that also diffuses to my life at school is his point that leaders lead self-examined lives.  In his book Leadership Redefined, he says, “We have two perfectly healthy eyes, but are we really seeing what is right in front of us?  Or are we letting our preconceived notions, filters of our own experiences, and faulty assumptions cloud our perspective?” (Weber, p. 63)  Since we came back from the conference, I have made it a point to “examine everything” more carefully and ask myself how my perspective might be different from a colleague’s or a student’s.  Being more self-aware about my strengths and weaknesses will help me to be a better teacher and collaborator, not to mention mother and friend, too.

Students also need to become more self-aware as learners, so I am going to continue to encourage my gifted cluster teachers to include reflection writing with higher level questions into their unit plans.  As students become more confident in their strengths, they can use those to support themselves in their weaknesses and to communicate more effectively where they need assistance.  This will enable our students to become more independent and self-responsible learners.  Using Paul’s Reasoning Model and other “perspective-taking” strategies with my students will help them to also “examine everything” and learn how to be better problem-solvers.

Thanks, VASCD, for a great experience.

     -Cathy Peterson, Gifted Resource Teacher, Princess Anne Middle School, Virginia Beach City Public Schools

     Source:  Weber, Dave.  Leadership redefined:  The 12 X’s of success for today’s leader.  Kennesaw, GA.  2012.

I have been an educator for 21 years and a learner for more than double that time. The view from both sides of the “classroom” is identical, as I was reminded throughout the VASCD conference, with every keynote speaker in every workshop, and even between sessions chatting with other educators. 

One thing I know for sure is that the best teachers (regardless of grade level, content, class size, student and school demographics, or even experience) intentionally create and nurture an environment that invites learning. Note the word “invites.” So what does that mean? It means we like students and we believe in them. And if either of those isn’t completely true, we never let on. In other words, it starts with what we believe. But believing isn’t enough. We have to do, and the things we do matter…a lot. 

The best teachers do several things. 

We get to know our students as whole people, not just names in a gradebook and faces in the front row.  We encourage risk, support failure, and help kids harvest the wisdom that comes from falling short.  We celebrate teamwork, originality, and resilience. We make crystal clear the academic goals and pay close attention to individual student’s journeys toward them. More importantly, we act as road signs, guardrails, or ladders along the way, guiding them to the destination with firm, caring commitment.

And that’s just in our individual classrooms.

What we do with and among other educators is just as important. Each of the above “do’s” can - and should - be applied to our interactions with colleagues. This profession is not easy and certainly not getting any easier. When we try to go it alone, we run into trouble. As I reconnected with several special educators during the conference, I was reminded of just how many “villagers” provided me with support on my journey from kindergarten assistant to Teacher Leader. 

As we move through our days and years in this profession I will seek to recognize, embrace, and celebrate what I gain from others. I will intentionally work with others to make our schools and our districts inviting for learners. I will talk with my colleagues – constantly, not just at conferences – offering and gleaning everyone’s best. As Rick Wormeli says about helping students, “Will we stand on the rim of the pit they have dug for themselves, or will we have the courage to jump in and lead the way out?” What I know for sure is that we should all be willing and available to jump into the pit for each other as we navigate this lifestyle called education.

     -Shelley Labiosa, Teacher Leader, Center for Teacher Leadership, Virginia Beach City Public Schools