Help Is Everywhere

I’m lucky to have so many resources to help me improve my teaching.

Colleagues share their stories, plans, and materials with me.  They open their doors and allow me to observe their lessons.  This is an undervalued and underused kind of professional development.

A row of books lines my desk, each written by a man or woman who has successfully done my job, and has shared the wisdom they’ve accumulated while doing it. I sometimes re-read a professional book, pick out a technique, strategy, or philosophy I find valuable, and make it a point to use it at least once in each of my classes during a week.

The Internet provides so many (too many) sources for any question I may have.  English teachers share what works and discuss the specifics of the profession every day via Twitter. People on the English Companion Ning have taken time to respond to my personal questions about lessons, units or teaching in general.

And at the end of each school day, there is the power of reflection: I replay the day in my head, deciding what worked, what didn’t, and recognizing the small changes that will make a big difference when the next group of students walks in the door.


Paying Attention

Designing presentations–PowerPoint, Prezi, Capzles,–is practice for close reading, isn’t it?

As students design presentations for an audience of their peers, they are motivated to pay attention to all of the details.  Each choice they make–fonts, colors, words, images, and placement of everything–is intentional.

What will look the best? What matches my purpose? What has the most emotional impact?

I present students with principles of effective design, and after viewing a few examples of “good” and “bad” design, they begin applying the principles to their work. There’s no convincing them that these principles matter; they see the evidence in the examples, and they see the positive change in their presentations when they begin designing like a designer.

This is the same intention I want students to notice when close reading. Students are reluctant to acknowledge the impact an author’s craft has on our comprehension and reaction to literature.

Words, punctuation, structure, and the way these work together to create images, convey attitudes, and ultimately transmit purposes are less easily seen then the clash of a font color with a background color, or the ill-placement of an image.

However, if students can orchestrate words and images with intention, then noticing it in the books they read should be a little easier.

Slowing Down

When walking in the hallway, I sometimes notice that I’m traveling quickly. It’s an arm swinging, rigid-stepped pace.

It’s as if I’m rushing to a meeting that has already begun.  Most likely, I walk fast often, but fail to notice it for the most part.

In these moments, I’m not late for anything.  Walking quickly through the halls is the default setting on busy days. When my mind is racing, my body naturally imitates the pace of my thoughts.

When I catch myself in this needless sprint-walk, I slow down, almost comically, to a casual stroll.

I instantly feel calmer and more relaxed.  I haven’t changed anything external; I’ve just noticed the needless rush and slowed down. The day will still be busy. I still have plenty to do.

But my mind won’t be frantic as a I read the next essay or talk to the next student.  I won’t be needlessly sprinting through the experience, racing late to a meeting that exists in my mind.

Instead, I slow down, read carefully, and listen.



A thoughtful professor once told me: “always err on the side of mercy.”

I’d abused a gratuitously lax due date; he instructed me to remember his words when future students plead sad cases.

As a first-year teacher, this motto seemed soft.  Students would trample over me unless I offered rigid due dates and punishments for missing them.

I showed little mercy. I had missed the point entirely.

The idea is to treat students as humans with challenges, responsibilities and lives. Knowing them and speaking to them gives me some insight into when students may truly need more time to get things right, and when they are pushing it.

Am I naive? Might students take advantage after experiencing leniency once?

Probably yes, and some will.  It is my responsibility to maintain high expectations, while still treating students as humans.

And if I’m wrong, I’d rather err on the side of mercy.