What is a thoughtful, professional, reflective teacher? What sorts of philosophies, passions and interests can allow educators to stay in such a difficult profession for the long term? My dedication to teaching is grounded in a passion for the arts and a deep respect for human relationships. I want to use my classroom as a place that broadens access to the forms of art and art making in which I have an expertise. I want my classroom to be a place where students feel honored, recognized and understood.
As a student teacher I have begun to find ways to weave my professional work as a dancer and art maker into the classroom. This work began with my apprenticeship of photographer Mary Beth Meehan in the fall and my MAT Teacher Researcher Project on choral reading in the spring. Additionally, I have participated in various critical friends groups in order to better understand my interactions with students. I grew as a professional by creating a pilot framework for integrating arts and movement in my classroom and further honed my relationships with students through the Descriptive Review of The Child project.
Integrating Teaching Artists
I often feel frustrated that I have not been able to grow and develop as a dancer with the same rigor and dedication I now devote to my teaching practice. However, as I reflect upon my student teaching placements, I realize the many ways my work in the classroom has begun to inform my perspective on the intersection between the art world and the classroom. At ICS I had the amazing opportunity to shadow ICS Artist in Residence Mary Beth Meehan. I observed the first several weeks of her annual ten-week photography project. Mary Beth, a professional photojournalist has been leading the project at ICS for the past six years. The first project began after ICS received RIDE grant money to augment their third grade social studies curriculum. Ever since, Mary Beth has been teaching photography skills to third graders to create a body of work on documenting culture. In fact, during the month of September Mary Beth’s 2013 project was on display at the University of Rhode Island Feinstein Campus, as part of a month long installation by their Arts and Culture Program. Forty-eight photographs taken by thirty-three ICS students were displayed for the public to see. The project continues to gain notoriety with each year.
I stayed late many Wednesdays in order to see how Mary Beth teaches the artistic process to students. No only did I learn how to break down the elements of good photography, I also saw the critical role played by classroom management in any creative endeavor with kids. Mary Beth consistently drew upon the support of my mentor teacher, Crystal, for knowledge about the student’s personal lives, work habits and behavior. As Mary Beth explained the importance of “framing and moment” guiding the students to create a story through photographs, Crystal would keep the excited group quiet and focused. Crystal often helped Mary Beth to hone and contextualize projects that the students had trouble with. Both artist and classroom teacher could not facilitate the project without one another. Each woman’s realm of professional expertise was absolutely critical to the project. Mary Beth provided the artistic expertise, while Crystale acted as somewhat of a translator enabling young people to participate in an extremely advanced art project.
My long-term goal is to merge my teaching practice with my love of the visual and performing arts. I could not have asked for a better opportunity to learn about this process. I saw, daily, how the creative process must dovetail with sound classroom management techniques and a comprehensive knowledge of students and teaching in order to be successful. I learned a great deal about undertaking an integrated, cross curricular project based in the arts with elementary students. In conjunction with my long-term goal to integrate arts programming in schools I hope to continue to observe and learn from more successful projects like Mary Beth’s. As I teach in different classrooms I wlll continue to strengthen my skills as a teacher/ room reader and student “translator.” What if one person could do both Mary Beth and Crystal’s job? This is my goal.
Teacher Researcher Project
In the Spring, with my fifth graders at William D’Abate Elementary I focused my creative practice on teaching Choral Reading comprehension strategies through The Brown Arts Literacy Cycle. I had noticed there was a lack of reading for authentic purposes in Amanda's classroom. Our time was so burdened with testing requirements, scripted curriculum and schedule changes that little opportunities were left for students to pick up books of their own choosing. Most in class reading time during whole group instruction was completed as Round Robin in which students take turns reading aloud an unfamiliar text. This practice “encourages inattention and passivity while appearing to ‘cover’ the material.” (Landay p.99) I set to researching the literature on my noticings and focused in quickly on Eileen Landay and Kurt Wooten’s development of The Arts Literacy Cycle.
I found a way for this research to dovetail with my interest in performance and movement when I began practicing choral reading with my students. Choral reading is one method used to improve comprehension of dense texts. Our class practiced reading Child of The Americas by Aurora Levins Morales in preparation for a performance set to take place during the culminating event of our Caribbean Social Studies Unit. We composed the read aloud as a chorus, at times reading all together as a group, sometimes soloists would read and other times trios or duets.
Reading texts aloud with the goal of a performance in mind helped students to see that words on a page could come alive. I was worried that they had not had this experience before: “In recent years, teachers have taken to teaching comprehension strategies to make the comprehension process visible in classrooms. Often these processes take the form of think-alouds that illustrate a skilled reader’s cognitive moves, graphic organizers to help students develop their vocabulary or sort and classify ideas, or structured methods for summarizing key ideas or comparing data from multiple sources. These may be useful steps in helping students practice reading and understanding, especially with complex and challenging texts. However, activities of this sort typically do not address the text’s relevance or provide reasons for student engagement. Intended to add clarity, they may instead add an additional layer of obfuscation to what the students are being asked to do.” (Landay p.90) I chose to practice choral reading in order to add meaning to the text we shared together in class. With my choral reading project students were meant to see that reading can create an imaginary world. Furthermore, reading and writing can create not only an imaginary world, but ( to quote Landay directly) a world that is not yet, but that might be.
“In recent years, teachers have taken to teaching comprehension strategies to make the comprehension process visible in classrooms. Often these processes take the form of think-alouds that illustrate a skilled reader’s cognitive moves, graphic organizers to help students develop their vocabulary or sort and classify ideas, or structured methods for summarizing key ideas or comparing data from multiple sources. These may be useful steps in helping students practice reading and understanding, especially with complex and challenging texts. However, activities of this sort typically do not address the text’s relevance or provide reasons for student engagement. Intended to add clarity, they may instead add an additional layer of obfuscation to what the students are being asked to do.” (Eileen Landay)
I gathered data on my choral reading project as well, conducting a student survey after our first reading in March and then giving out the same survey again after our final performance in April. The data was very interesting, the overall number of students who responded "yes" to the prompt "Choral Reading helps me imagine the text in my head" went up after our two months of practice! Throughout a longer study, this data could certainly help me to show that choral reading is a powerful tool for reading comprehension.
Descriptive Review of the Child
I also grew professionally from conducting a Descriptive Review of The Child project in the Fall of 2014. I spent several weeks collecting data and observing a third grade student of mine who may have otherwise gone unnoticed. I observed him more closely than any other student following to lunch and recess, noting his behavior in specials. With this close review and descriotion I got to know eight year old Efrain better than I would from the peripheral role of teacher.
Through my observations I saw his personality blossom with friends and playmates while with authority figures and other teachers he often appeared shy and unsure of himself. I learned I should be less presumptuous about student personalities. During the Descriptive Review project I realized who Efrain truly was, not who he appeared to be when glimpsed only several times a day as one of eighteen students. I saw up close all of his talents and individual genius. I imagine this is how parents come to know their own children, wholistically.
I met with four other classmates on two different occasions to discuss my observations and reflections on Efrain. The work of this inquiry group was profoundly meaningful. “the work of inquiry communities is both social and political... it involves making problematic the current arrangements of schooling; the ways knowledge is constructed, evaluated and used; and teachers’ individual and collective roles in bringing about change.” (p. 289 In a review of teacher learning in communities, Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) in ABU El Haj 2003 p.5) My inquiry group or “Critical Friends Group” was a way to make the examination of an individual student part of a larger conversation on schools and schooling. Considered in the abstract when presented to fellow teachers, how could my interactions with Efrain be filtered through both social and political lenses? How could noticings of the individual inform my understanding of the larger context of which I am a part?
The first time we met, I asked for tips on how to build Efrain’s confidence so he could be more himself with teachers, more animated and sure of himself as I had noticed when he was among fellow classmates. One of my critical friends pointed out, perhaps since Efrain’s family was from Guatemala it simply was not part of his cultural background to be silly and casual with adults. Another friend suggested stooping or kneeling when talking to Efrain, so as to place him above me and perhaps not feel as intimidated by someone standing above him. Both of these comments were extremely informative and changed the way I viewed my work. Collaborating with an inquiry group enriched the Descriptive Review project immensely.
Through my own observations and reflections as well as with the help of my inquiry group I realized an important paradigm shift in my teaching practice: instead of thinking about "how I can get a child to change in order to function better in the classroom" I realized it is more meaningful to ask “how must my practice change to expand possibilities and opportunities for this child?” (Abu El Haj p.823).
Given that each child is different, and presumably trying their hardest to do good work, the teacher must take on the responsibility of accommodating uniqueness, rather than squelching it. How can we approach all students with unconditional positive regard, and, what happens when we do? Later in the spring when I worked with many disruptive and inattentive students I referred back to my Descriptive Review process as a touchstone. Instead of thinking “how can I get them to stop doing that?”, I thought “what am I not seeing?” Each child is a complicated, fascinating, intricate human being with a whole life behind and ahead of them. With regards to classroom practice, the Descriptive Review process deepend my appreciation of this truth, it is a valuable tool I hope to take with me to the next school in which I work.
El-Haj, Thea Renda Abu. "Practicing for Equity From the Standpoint of the Particular: Exploring the Work of One Urban Teacher Network." Teachers College Record 105.5 (2003): 817-45. Web.
Landay, E., & Wootton, K. (2012). A reason to read: Linking literacy and the Arts. Harvard Education Press , Cambridge Ma