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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Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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The Child At My Door

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It was a late November night,
And I was just about done.
The stacks of papers that I needed to grade
Had, in some small way, dwindled down to none.

I lifted the stained red cup from my desk
And finished the cold coffee poured hours before;
I reached for the lamp signed by students years ago,
But was stopped by a soft knock on my classroom door.

“Enter!” I said, but there was no reply,
And so I left the light on and walked to see who was there.
I peered out the small window and saw a head bowed so low;
It was a mere child, standing small, his clothes threadbare.

I opened the door – just a crack – to see who he was
And what he wanted, and why he was here.
At first he didn’t speak, not a single sound;
I wondered if he was dumb, or simply frozen with fear.

“What is it, my son?” I asked. “You can tell me what is wrong.”
He looked up, his eyes stained with mud and tears,
And immediately I could see that he had traveled far;
This boy, still in his teens, had aged far beyond these early years.

“My Lord, what has come of you?” I asked, still holding the door.
“My school has closed,” he replied, “And I have nowhere else to go.
“They have burned our buildings and our books.
“Now we are left with no place to grow.”

I felt the weight of the door press against my chest
As I looked into his eyes, filled with desperation, with defeat.
My classes were already packed, I thought,
And I was warned to be wary of lies, or even deceit.

Was I wrong to be fearful of this boy,
Who had traveled far to seek shelter in my room?
After all, he was different, and his land was filled with dread;
He came from a place that was dark, a harbinger of Persephone’s tomb.

I pulled the door shut, affirming my fears, and sighed.
As I had been warned of the dangers of such travelers in the night,
True, though I knew they had nowhere left to turn,
It would be easy for me to send him away, out of my sight.

But then I turned around and looked across my room
At the scattered desks left awry by the lives I had taught;
Hundreds – no thousands – over the years who had come through this door
Despite their struggles, their challenges, that had once left them distraught.

Of their backgrounds I knew little at the beginning of school,
Then- as they wrote, and shared, their stories with their peers,
I understood the adversity that they had faced
And realized that I had met them at the end of their hardship years.

Was this child any different than those who had come?
Different than the thousands who brought color and life?
They filled these four walls in this once-barren room
With the expressions of love and learning, far distant from that long-ago strife.

I thrust open the door and welcomed him in-
A shuffle, if you will, of warmth and care like I had shown no other.
“You are welcome in this room, my friend,” I said,
“And here you are safe, for I will help you as I would my own brother.”

I poured him the last of my coffee and gave him my seat,
The soft glow of the old lamp casting a warm light on his tired face.
We are all one in this world, once weary, once in need, I thought,
As he absorbed the feel of his new home, a nurturing, kind place.

I stuffed the stack of papers in my old teacher’s bag
And opened our books to chapter one.
He looked at me and smiled when he read the first three words
And I smiled too— For us both, as our new journeys had, indeed, just begun.

Rus VanWestervelt, 11/18/15

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

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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.

A Chill In August (Re)Ignites The Fire To Teach

It reached 77 degrees today, on this, the 24th of August. Blue sky, patchy white clouds, and the eerie absence of a Baltimore humidity that makes thousands of locals usually proclaim, “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”

In Baltimore, it’s been neither this summer; just one late-spring day after another. Heat waves have lasted hours, not days, and nobody has been asked to be reminded of the endless days in winter where polar vortices and near-blizzards were making us stare at the summer months on the kitchen calendar.

The real cold front this summer, though, had nothing to do with the weather. It occurred on August 11, when news quickly spread that Robin Williams – comedian, actor, and goodwill activist – had taken his own life.

His death sent a chill in each of us for many different reasons, stirring an unsettling rush of emotions. Whether we felt the chilly sting of childhood memories, the angst of another life lost to depression and mental illness, or the dumbfounding shock of the loss of a great human being, we felt the chill deep in our hearts far longer than we thought possible.

Some of us feel it still.

I appreciated Williams’ stand-up humor or his role as Mork from Ork. It was his movies, though, especially Dead Poets Society, that made a mark on me at the most vulnerable months in my life.

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams

20140812-071531-26131782.jpgFive events happened in the span of 66 days in 1989. They changed my life because I made the choice to realize my little spark of madness, open my mind for the positive, and accept the charge to live fully. For me, it was a 66-day gestation period of what Carpe Diem really means. Since those 66 days, I have lost my way on several occasions, but I keep coming back to my foundation from that experience.

On April 22, 1989, my father died.

On June 9, 1989, my mother and I took a trip north to New England for a change of scenery from the daily reminders of our lives without her husband, my father. We visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the graves of Emerson and Thoreau moved me as much as when I spent the afternoon at Walden Pond, reading excerpts from “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.”

On June 17, 1989, despite my resistance to see anything that was popular or trending (we didn’t even know that word existed in 1989), I saw the movie Dead Poets Society with my best friend. I had just finished my second year of teaching, and the portrayal of Mr. John Keating by Robin Williams echoed the sentiments swelling within me from the death of my father and my trip to New England.

On June 24, 1989, 63 days after the passing of my father, 15 days after retracing Thoreau’s steps, and 7 days after seeing the movie Dead Poets Society, I wrote this in my daybook:

“Going to New England made an impact on me that I pray to God I will never lose. . . .Thoreau has made an impact on me like no other. His natural philosophies of “Simplicity” and “Carpe Diem” are the ways that I have been haphazardly living my life. I don’t want to overdo it, however. All I want to do is seize the day and have as much control over my life as God will allow me.”

And this:

“Yes. I love teaching, and I will continue to educate. But my style will change, and my focus will change. I can’t do it all as a teacher. So therefore, I must focus my classroom to resonate a very specific theme or intention. Much like the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society, I want to teach my students to seize the day, to see their independent strengths and weaknesses, to dare to strike out and find new ground.”

And finally this:

“I will not be one of the masses leading my life in quiet desperation. I am a happy man, and I don’t have any regrets. I love this world, and I will strive to leave my small mark to make it just a little better place in which to live.”

On June 26, 1989, I started my 5-week journey with the Maryland Writing Project to become a certified Teacher-Consultant.

The fusion of philosophy, spirituality, and pedagogy had occurred within me, and I carried with me the spark to teach, to make a difference, to accept the dare to strike out and find new ground.

Twenty-five years later, on this chilly afternoon in August, on this Sunday before classes resume at sunrise tomorrow, I can feel the fire burning within me to teach, to inspire, to seize the blessed gifts of being a classroom teacher.

We are given so few chances in life to make a difference. It’s what we do with those chances that changes lives. I will not spend a moment of my time in my classroom grieving the loss of a great actor and human being; I will, instead, continue to ignite that fire to learn, to embrace the importance of individual strength and confidence, to engage my students in literature that resonates truth and passion for living, to empower them with the mighty pen so that they, too, can change the world with their words.

I slip on a light sweater and review my notes for the first week. My Daybook is overflowing with ideas about what to teach, and suddenly 180 days seems like such a finite number. I turn to day one, and focus.

Carpe Diem, I think.

For you, Robin, yes. But for 142 others as well who have a world of dreams around them.

It is time to share the fire. It is time to stand on new ground, and teach.

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Flowing with Van Gogh

I was struck this morning by the satellite image of the three storms brewing in the Atlantic Ocean. The National Hurricane Center is predicting an above-average likelihood for storms to hit the east coast this year, making the stretch between North Carolina and Massachusetts as likely to get hit as Florida or the other Gulf Coast states.

Seeing this image reminded me immediately of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the similarities.

Some things are timeless, aren’t they? Take away the cell phones and iPads and Facebook and Skype, and you are left with a certain kindred spirit shared with Nature. It’s in us, all the time, waiting to be tapped, accessed, embraced.

Now, I’m fairly sure that Vincent didn’t have some kind of psychical experience with the Hurricane Center, tapping into some yet-to-fly satellites capturing the swirling beauty of the giants in our oceans. No. He probably wasn’t event thinking about hurricanes at all.

But the patterns are apparent in all of nature — the whirls and swirls of the winds, the rains, the energy and spirit running like a meandering current around rocks and banks and all things between.

It’s a universal image, when we stop long enough to see it. Maybe even feel it, too.

School starts up for me on Monday. I resume teaching English 12 Honors after a five-year hiatus, and at times I have let the needs overwhelm me. It is at these times that I feel like it’s me against some other force — time, perhaps. Maybe that won’t-go-away pressure to be perfect all the time.

What will they think if they walk into my room and things don’t look polished and positively sterile?

They’ll probably think that things are as they have always been, for sure.

That’s why I am grateful that I am keeping at least a small channel open in my mind to see the beauty in things like a weather map so that it may serve as a reminder to me, in some way, that I can’t fight or resist; I can only recognize the natural patterns surrounding me, then make a decision about whether to Flow or Go.

That’s all any of us can do. Everything else breeds resistance and resentment, and none of us has the time to waste on such nonsense.

Stop, feel the whirls and swirls around you, and act: Flow or Go?

Suddenly, your life will never be the same. . . .