Model Teaching: Empowerment Through Multi-Faceted Instruction

I’ve been teaching for a long time — long enough to see the spin of the pedagogical cycle of strategies come full circle. What I have learned along the way is that there are some practices that work better than others when it comes to teaching writing.
In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a call-to-action report, “Writing in the 21st Century,” that stated clearly our need to recognize the importance of teaching writing in a way that aligns with our complex lifestyles interwoven with technology and multitasking.

In the report’s introduction, NCTE past president, Kathleen Blake Yancey, writes, “It’s time for us to join the future and support all forms of 21st century literacies, inside school and outside school. For in this time and in this place we want our kids—in our classrooms, yes, and in our families, on our streets and in our neighborhoods, across this wide country and, indeed, around the world—to ‘grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool.’” (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion)

She rallies teachers of writing to answer this “call to research and articulate new composition, [this] call to help our students compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, the citizen writers of our world, and the writers of our future.”

I could not agree more with Yancey’s call to action. What we need to do, as teachers of writing, is to find ways to integrate the various strategies that have worked over the years and apply them to real-world needs that empower our students to effect change. This is the most meaningful way to make writing matter to students who are already engaged in communication outlets and devices only dreamed of in sci-fi works a generation ago.

Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, models this beautifully in a 12-minute feature with the Teaching Channel. This video, titled, “Making Learning Personalized and Customized,” empowers individuals in the classroom to write about real issues (many of their own choosing) that are relevant in their lives today and, most certainly, their future.

What makes McComb’s approach so authentic and applicable to the students’ lives is his development of this project.

McComb’s strategies are clear in this graphic that is presented toward the end of the video. Not only has he integrated technology through Skype sessions and Google interviews with real sources, as well as through laptops and tablets at various stations, he has integrated opportunities for individual, one-on-one, small group, and larger group collaborative activities that all work toward the publishing of original, genuine, and meaningful works for a larger audience.

In other words, he has taken the finest materials of our best teaching strategies, the recursive writing process, real-world issues, and publishing and has seamlessly woven them together to create a lasting experience for his students that they will be able to apply long after the last bell rings for the school year.
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Our opportunities to teach well and effect change in the classroom are still available to us as teachers of writing (and this applies to all ages and across all content areas). We need to rethink how we approach teaching, though, and create projects like McComb’s that have strong beginnings built on the foundations of communication and comprehension, solid middles filled with diverse opportunities for rigorous and highly applicable learning, and empowering endings that give the students the tools they need to succeed in real-world ways that improve their communities and allow them to fight confidently and appropriately in the acts of advocacy and equality.

To see the full video, click on the image below.
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Why I Love Teaching (#LoveTeaching)

Looking for Sage Wisdom

More than anything else, I remember his face, ripped with an ugly mash up of dull red stress and those deep lines of resigned anger in the corners of his eyes, along his forehead, and drawing down at the tips of his lips. He pushed his cart from one classroom to the next with a hunchback trudging, dragging his beat brown shoes with every resisting step.

I was 21 and doing my high school student teaching rotation at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore, MD. I wore argyle sweaters and matching socks; the pennies in my loafers were polished and facing out so that Abe would be leading the way with every fresh step I took.

I spent a lot of time talking to veteran educators to learn as much as I could about what it was like to be a teacher. The advice I got was mostly cautious; the vets didn’t want to burst my bubble about the realities of their job, but they didn’t want to sugarcoat the day-to-day routine that was nothing like what the textbooks preached to us back in the University classrooms.

When it came time to talk with the man with the ripped face, I asked him the same question I had asked the others:

“With all of your wisdom gained in teaching over the course of your career, what stands out as the most important piece of advice you can give young teachers?”

We were in the teacher planning area, and he leaned against his cart and stared at me with his tired eyes. They were once blue, but not anymore. They had a film over them that reminded me of the eyes of a fish who was just about ready to go belly up in the water.

“You are asking me for advice?”

I nodded with a smile. In my hand was a pencil pressed against a fresh page in my journal.

“I hate my job. I don’t know what has happened to the kids but you can’t teach ‘em. They don’t want to be here, and neither do I. I got three years to go until retirement, and then I am out of here.”

The page in my journal remained blank.

“If you are looking for advice,” he said, “it’s this. Don’t get into this worthless profession. I look back on my life and regret every minute of it, spent on ungrateful kids in a broken system. If you don’t take my advice, you’ll find out for yourself in 25 years. Nothing but regret.”

He pushed his cart past me, and I was left with the residual scents of Old Spice and stale black coffee in his wake.

I had a few minutes before I needed to meet my mentor teacher. I sat down and wrote, “Don’t forget this. The moment I begin to feel this way – if I ever do – I need to get out. Leave the classroom. Stop teaching. I can’t imagine that happening, though. I wonder what I will be like as a teacher 25 years from now?”

Those 25 years have come and gone, and I now know what I am like as a teacher, and why.

I know that I love teaching today more than I did when I was a student teacher in early 1987.

Why I Love Teaching

Sean McComb, my former student-turned-colleague and 2014 National Teacher of the Year, asked me earlier this week to reflect on why I love teaching. It’s been something that I have been thinking about all week. After making some tough choices, I’ve whittled the list down to these four very human reasons.

Students and teachers who are more mindful in the classroom have reduced anxiety, stress.Recognizing the Students

I can think of no greater profession than teaching when it comes to working with individuals who are on the brink of independence. Each year, I look forward to meeting my students who bring with them hopes, desires, dreams, and even fears. Even more important, they bring with them their individuality. Each has much to teach all of us, and I am grateful for the opportunity to provide that space for them to take the risks they need to grow.

Having the Power to Empower

To start a fire, you need three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. The same is true in the classroom when igniting learning. Each child in the classroom needs three things to grow: materials (fuel), space to think (oxygen), and experiential opportunities (heat). I love to provide all three to my students and empower them to think, create, collaborate, and present their final innovations.

Providing Equality of Voices, Recognizing Individual Strength, Fostering Confidence

Students who are empowered are then respectful of others’ voices, opinions, and ideas. It transcends tolerance; it opens the doors for collaborative conversation at a higher level, where the focus shifts from problems to solutions. I see this often in my classes where students who have embraced their differences generate practical and meaningful solutions that were once unthinkable. In this environment, they are not “stuck” on what divides them; they, instead, thrive on what unites them.

Instilling a Lifelong Love for Reading and Writing

We are a grade-driven world, there’s no doubt about it. Something powerful happens, though, when students are empowered to embrace a lifelong love for reading and writing: securing good grades becomes secondary to the learning that is taking place. The grades they seek are an outcome, not the primary goal, from embracing a lifelong love for what they are learning. In my area, that’s reading and writing. By giving them the tools, the space, and the experiential opportunities, the fire they create won’t be going out any time soon.

Advice to the Young (Teachers) at Heart


So now it is my turn to be the one pushing that cart. I, thank goodness, do not smell like Old Spice, and I am, for the most part, wrinkle-free. So if you, new teacher, were to ask me my advice about why I love teaching, here is what I would tell you.

You entered this profession for noble reasons (God knows it wasn’t for the money). When you sat in Principles of SecEd or Foundations of Education, you dreamed of the many ways you were going to make a difference. You were going to change the world.

I was there, too.

The challenge is handling those first few years where those dreams of changing the world clash with the reality of juggling the myriad roadblocks and derailments that do their best to get in your way. For some teachers, like the one I interviewed at Perry Hall so many years ago, they don’t make it through those tough times. They become jaded and they never recover.

Here’s the secret: We don’t teach to administer standardized tests or to resist the rolling trends of best practices, policies, and politics; don’t let those things dissolve your dreams about changing the world and making a difference. Those roadblocks and derailments are a part of our professional lives as much as the trials and tribulations we face in our personal lives.

We teach to touch lives, to provide opportunity and experience. Teaching is a very human experience; we offer that personal connection that ignites the lifelong desire within to learn, read, write, and make a difference. It’s more about the stuff you can’t test.

You begin to realize this when you begin to let go of the roadblocks and the derailments.

So hang in there, young teachers. We need you. We need your courage, your imagination, your belief. We need your vision that making a difference and changing the world are still possible.

Because if you still believe in it, then your students will as well. And that, my wonderful colleagues, is why we teach: To ignite and pass along the timeless torch of learning, living, and loving to all who enter our classroom.