Questioning Teaching: An Attempt to Balance Paradox

The more I teach, the more I realize that a teacher’s job is to balance paradox. A teacher has to be comfortable with a degree of mystery and unanswered questions. At any given moment, one student might connect to what is happening in class, and another might be diametrically opposed. When this happens, what are we supposed to do? This is something I’m thinking a lot about these days.

Below are the paradoxical questions that are on my mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel inclined to tackle them. Although they are written separately, I also acknowledge the web they weave.

  • What happens when the teacher’s concept of what is fair clashes with a student’s concept of what is fair? When the concept of fairness does not relate to the outcome of one’s learning, does fairness have a position in the argument?
  • What is the teacher’s role when 80% of the class is on board with your methodology and 20% has a distinct aversion to it?
  • How can we address different degrees of ambiguity tolerance between students?
  • As a language skills teacher of in-service English teachers, I try to lead by example, but what is my role or approach when there seems to be incongruence between the teacher-trainees’ training experience, and the experience they are going to meet when they go back to class? How can I give them autonomy over their language learning, when they don’t feel they are in a position to do the same for their students?
  • How do we truly know what students need praise from the teacher, and who is motivated by their own effort?
  • What is my role when students have grown up in a culture of comparison and competition, and this clashes with my beliefs about learning? Where do I look for clarity when the answers evade me? What questions do I ask? When do I ask them?

If you have your own paradoxical questions, feel free to add them in the comment section. Maybe together we can help each other embrace the paradox.

Reflective Practice Challenge 3: Describing a Moment

It has taken me while to think of a moment that I wanted to use for the most recent RP challenge as set out by John Pfordresher

Think about a negative interaction you have had in your classroom. Not an entire lesson, but a single interaction that occurred between you and someone else (a student, another teacher, a parent, etc).

Perhaps a student was sleeping in class, or being disruptive or inattentive. Perhaps we, the teacher, reacted to a specific stimuli in an unhelpful way. Maybe someone walked in on a lesson and caused a negative disruption to us or our students.

Our task today is to take this negative interaction and describe it. It is important that we describe and describe only.

I have chosen a moment, but I will say up front, I did not follow John’s instructions. Please read David Harbinson, Anne Hendler, and Hana Ticha’s (first and second post) descriptions. They followed John’s instructions wonderfully, and I highly recommend clicking on their links. Their descriptions describe those raw moments of vulnerability that make teaching one of the scariest and most exhilarating professions out there. 

What I have decided to do instead is change the word “negative” into “challenging”, and the interaction will be less about a learner and I sharing words or actions, but more of me observing an interaction between two teacher-trainees that gave me pause. It is a moment that is significant to me and my future work with teachers, and so I need this space to learn more about what is going on and what I can do in the future. It is a moment that I face each semester.

Apologies in advance for the length. This description is reminiscent of my graduate study days. The more the better seemed to be the motto back then.

Setting up the description:

This was the second time I heard him/her share this story in 24 hours. The first time was during his/her entrance interview. And to add more depth to why I chose this moment, I heard him/her share this story two more times in the following 12 hours. I had only met him/her 24 hours before the moment I am going to share with you.

The description:

Learning my students
Learning my students

It was the first full day of classes and this moment happened during the last class of the day. The teachers had just done a gallery walk where they discussed various famous quotes about learning and teaching. After this 15 minute small group discussion, I asked the teachers to finish the following sentence on a piece of paper: I want to be a teacher who… because… After finishing their sentences, they shared with their partner.

I wanted them to do this for two reasons. One reason is that the course is about learning different strategies and approaches to teaching. I wanted to give them the space to articulate what this might look like for them. By writing this sentence, they can start thinking about why they are in our course, and also start taking the steps to become that teacher. The other reason I wanted to do this was to give them the space to share their hopes and challenges. By sharing these sentences with someone else, they may start feeling part of a community. They came to the course alone, and it is important to their development as teachers that they don’t feel alone during the course. This is a description of my thought process for the activity.

As two teachers were sharing, I heard one (Teacher A) say to the other (Teacher B), “I never wanted to be a teacher. I was forced to be a teacher by my father.” Teacher B listened attentively and asked questions. I couldn’t hear exactly what Teacher B was asking, but I could see that she/he was facing Teacher A and looking at him/her with openness. Teacher B’s arms were not crossed but at his/her side, with one arm leaning on the desk. He/she looked at Teacher B in the eyes the way a friend does when they are listening to you share something that is difficult. When Teacher A spoke, Teacher B nodded and looked at Teacher A.

At one point, I heard Teacher A say, “I am in this course because I almost quit last year. I have a family and I can’t quit.” I’m not sure when he/she said this. And I’m not sure how Teacher B responded. It was hard to hear details with 14 other teachers talking, and I also didn’t want to intrude on their personal exchange.

As I walked around, my mind went to Teacher A. I felt worried about him/her. I wondered how he/she would behave in the course. Would he/she be up for all the tasks ahead? I wondered how he/she would impact the other teachers. Would he/she bring them down? I wondered what he/she needed from me and the other trainers, and what I could give back without spending all my energy. I felt nervous because this was the second time I heard him/her say this and I thought he/she might need a lot of care and I wondered if I was ready for the possible task.

The pair discussions lasted about 15 minutes. During this time, I walked a bit in the middle of the classroom (16 teachers sitting at 16 individual desks set up in a horseshoe shape) or stayed at the front. It was hard to walk around the class because there were extra desks and the class wasn’t accommodating much more. I could hear bits and pieces of what everyone was sharing. Everyone looked engaged as I didn’t see any pair sitting silently. Everyone was sharing something, or at least listening to someone share.

Once the discussion was over, I thanked them for sharing some challenging stories as well as their hopes, and then we moved on to looking at what the course might offer them by looking at a list of course objectives.

As I reread the description, I’m curious to know how the rest of the challenge will go. It doesn’t feel like a juicy description where I can dig in deep. No one was behaving badly or in a way that brings up thoughts of classroom management or lesson design in the classical sense. However, I know I have a lot to learn from this. Perhaps it isn’t the moment itself, but the symbolism of the moment that means more to me. But I shouldn’t go to this place yet. I’ll save that for challenge No. 4.

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Previous posts I’ve written on the topic of description:

A Final Learning Statement at Centro Espiral Mana, SIT TESOL

On Friday, the February 2013 SIT TESOL course at Centro Espiral Mana ended. When a course closes here, participants are asked to create a final learning statement, summarizing what they have learned over the four weeks. Some participants wrote songs, poems, or essays, some created visual representations, and others recorded narratives. Each of these creations highlighted the inspiring process that goes on at Centro. Tony Paredes — a teacher from Tarapato, Peru — created the comic strip below. I asked Tony if I could share his learning statement  because I thought it was a great example of how some experienced teachers feel after taking this course. As Tony shows us, it’s truly transformative.

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PS. Thank you – somewhere in Daegu a teacher trainer is smiling

This arrived in my inbox. I share this message because it warmed my heart.

“PS. I can’t recite exactly what I’ve learned from day 1 till now in your class, but I feel sure that I’ve learned about how to organize the lesson from the students’ perspective and how to build the lesson step by step. even though I have a hard time doing my lesson that way at the moment, it seems I’ve found in which direction to go. That’s a big leap for me. Thank U !”

The semester ends in two weeks.  Knowing that I reached at least one teacher is one of the best New Year’s gifts I could receive.

Learning is a…Process3

The Creative Joy of Final Learning Statements

In three days, our training course will be over. In these final days, it’s time for participants to look back over their four months together and reflect on what’s been meaningful and what they’ve learned. To help them do this, I asked them to respond to a list of questions Mary Scholl (SIT teacher-trainer) created and kindly shared with me. Below are a few examples:

  • If you were to choose 10 words to describe your experience in the course, what would they be?
  • If your experience in the course were like weaving a beautiful cloth, what would be the threads that hold the cloth together?
  • How would you explain your experience in this course to a five year old?
  • What would your ideal motto be in the future?
  • If you had to sell this course, what would your slogan and ad campaign look like?
  • Go through all of your journal entries from the course. Choose the ones that are most meaningful to you. Why are they meaningful?
  • Make a metaphor for how the course has affected you. Be juicy and deep in your description.

With these questions, they created final learning statements that would then become the front cover of  their learning portfolios. They kept this portfolio throughout my writing course.  I encouraged the participants to be as creative as they wanted, and as you’ll see, they didn’t hold back. During our final learning statement gallery walk (gallery walk explanation coming soon), I was inspired at each turn. I hope you feel inspired too.

Please enjoy the artistic exhbilition of learning!

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Privacy tip: Notice the funky, random strips on some of the statements? To keep the anonymity of my participants, I used the smartphone app Labelbox to cover their names.

Our Reflective Community

You know that feeling when everything comes together at the right moment? I’m experiencing one of these moments right now.

A year ago I was asked if I was interested in organizing a “branch” of the KOTESOL Reflective Practice (RP) Special Interest Group (SIG) in Daegu. I said no. I just didn’t have the space in my life, so I turned down the idea.

Well, last Saturday, with the inspiring support (and nudging) of my friend and colleague KongJu (Princess) Suh, I facilitated our first Daegu RP-SIG meeting. A year after the initial request, the moment was right. There are some things that are just stronger than you, and the energy of the reflective teacher’s community here in Korea is one of these things.

Over a year ago, the RP-SIG was created by Michael Griffin (Mike), Manpal Sahota and Kevin Giddens. Since then, the Seoul RP-SIG, along with Daejeon’s group, has been very successful in raising the awareness of teachers from all professional backgrounds about the concept of reflective practice. Although I’ve supported the SIG by presenting about reflection at a few conferences, the more I heard about what was going on during the monthly meetings, the more excited I got about starting something in Daegu.

what’s the RP-SIG all about?

Seoul RP-SIG meeting (Mike facilitating)

In his article, The Reflective Practice SIG: What Is It? How
Can It Help You?, in the Spring 2012, TEC (The English Connection) News, Mike gives us a clear image of the SIG’s vision.

It seems to me that professional development often amounts to one person at the front of the room telling others how and why they should do something. In the RP-SIG, we try to get away from that and have members come to their own conclusions about their own teaching practices. It was with this vision of professional development in mind that we held the first RP-SIG meeting in February, 2011. The RP-SIG’s purpose is (a) to challenge our perceptions of who we are and what we do, (b) to build strategies to become a more aware educator, and (c) to share and learn through each others’ experiences and beliefs.

Challenging perceptions? Becoming a more aware educator? Sharing and learning through experiences and beliefs? Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a rich community? Mike definitely makes a convincing case for anyone who wants to start such a community of teachers.

Princess’ Daegu KOTESOL workshop on how to teach writing to Korean high school students

This community is what my nudger, Princess, was hoping to see in Daegu. One evening in March over dinner — after we had spent a few hours working on the presentation she was going to give on how to teach writing to high school students — Princess shared her dream of starting a group where English teachers could come together and talk about teaching. At this point, I was more keen about the idea of launching the SIG. We talked and got quite excited about it. But we wanted to be sure we could give it our all, so we decided to think it over and make it happen when the time was right. Three weeks ago, Princess called me and the plans for last Saturday were set in motion.

Model of an RP-SIG meeting

Knowing about Mike’s success in facilitating the Seoul RP-SIG meetings, I wanted to follow his model. He shares the meeting’s structure in the TEC News:

A typical RP-SIG meeting consists of  four parts: (a) ice-breaker – an interactive warming up session to break the ice, (b) check-in – groups of 3 or 4 discuss personal reflective goals, (c) discussion – facilitator leads group discussion to promote reflective practice, and (d) check-out – reaffirmation of personal goals and direction. We hope that members can take the ideas, thoughts, and experiences from the meetings and transfer them to their own contexts.

Since it was our first meeting, the nine teachers in attendance checked-in by introducing themselves and explained a bit about why they wanted to be part of the SIG. A few said they felt like they were becoming lazy in their teaching practices and wanted to feel better about teaching.

We then moved into the discussion part of the meeting where I decided to follow the model I had presented about a few weeks earlier (see An Image of Reflection: learning from my RP workshop). In pairs, we each shared a teaching/learning moment and explored it via the Experiential Learning Cycle. Our partner’s role was to help keep us focused by asking questions that pertained to each stage (ie: description stage – How many students were there? How big is the class? Was it a hot day?). Between each stage we regrouped and discussed how we felt about the process. This was extremely rich in that it allowed us to get a deeper understanding of the process while also getting a deeper understanding of our teaching/learning moment.

The meeting ended with the check-out. We made reflection goals for the month, shared them with each other, and decided we would share the results of our goal regardless of whether or not we were able to accomplish it. The important point is we are here to support each other as reflective teachers no matter what the results.

The beginning for us, how about for you?

So this is the beginning of our reflective community in Daegu! I’m very excited to see where we will go, but more importantly I’m very happy to be part of the larger RP community. Throughout its first year, the RP-SIG has been incredibly supportive, inspiring, and motivating. Teachers now have a place where they can share their experiences and expand there ideas in a safe environment.

I hope this post has given you more clarity on what a reflective teaching community can look like. Maybe you are now also inspired to start your own group. The reflective vibe is quite contagious. If you do decide to start a group, let us know! We’d love to help you out.

Celebrating Learning and Teaching

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

Through my reflective practice, I become an explorer of learning. By reflecting on my teaching, I discover that I have much more to learn. Teaching and learning are my ouroboros.

This blog itself is a celebration of my ouroboros, and the theme of the final celebration of this three part series. You’ve celebrated teachers and learners, and now it’s time to celebrate the experiences these two create.

For the final round of celebrating, describe what you’ve learned about teaching or learning via your blog, email (josette.leblanc@gmail.com), or Facebook, and I’ll post your stories here to this entry. (scroll down to see entries) Thank you so much to those who have participated, and to those who have expressed interest in this series. It’s been a fun process, and something I hope to try again in the future.

Once again, below you’ll find some learning moments my participants shared in their writing assignments. I feel so happy and proud that they are discovering their own ouroburos.

Continue reading “Celebrating Learning and Teaching”