Angela wrote a fantastic piece last week about finding your nonfiction writing voice. This week, I’m going to branch off from that a little to reflect on finding your teaching style, which I think has some connection – although certainly, teaching style varies by where you teach, what you teach, and who you teach.
Last week, I walked in the door for my eighth First Day of School at one of the places I love most in the world. Of course, Year 8 started long before then: it started a year ago, when my entire department began re-imagining our courses. It continued last spring as I teamed with a few colleagues to build our new 9th grade course and accelerated 10th grade course (aka honors). And of course, it certainly continued into the summer this year, as a full-on department redesign takes a good time commitment from all involved.
It’s been an exciting process, and this year, the redesign is where my creative energies have gone.
I realized very, very early in my first year that it was one thing to know a lot of history and quite another to figure out how to teach it. In graduate school, I’d dived so deeply into specific areas of American history that other areas – the things that are common fare for high school history in particular – had almost slipped my mind. My first year of teaching became a year of figuring out what I needed to know and how to help my students learn it. That’s a regular pursuit, it turns out: never overestimate your knowledge and never be afraid to re-think what it means to teach something, or how to do it.
Part of my teaching philosophy in these past years has centered around constant revision: one approach might work well with one class, but fall flat with another. I tend to start every lesson planning session by browsing old lesson plans, then editing them ad nauseum to try to make something that will just be BETTER this year.
After all: I’m a different teacher now than I was a year ago, or three years ago. Why teach exactly the same way when I’ve learned more from the experiences since then?
We don’t lecture here – or at least, we’re not supposed to. My class size averages about 15-17 in any given term, and the more I can get THEM talking and asking questions, the more dynamic and in-depth things get.
This year, my teaching style is being shaped by several things:
- The department redesign, which means we’ve moved content into new grade levels (For example, this means I’ve never taught the world wars to 9th graders; it looks a little different when they haven’t yet studied imperialism, and they haven’t yet had any writing experience in high school)
- My summer PD in England, where I spent a week at an Oxbridge teacher program and visited the Imperial War Museum
- Our end-of-year PD last June, when I got to learn from Amy Burvall and Alexis Wiggins.
I’ve always done my best to engage students actively, but this year I’m trying in new ways. Burvall’s work on creativity and her ideas from Intention have really helped me rethink how I might approach any given class period. On top of that, I’m charging ahead this year with a really big goal of adapting Wiggins’ spider web discussions regularly (and so far, so good: my second day of each course brought more fruitful, full-class discussions than I may have ever had at that point in the year).
My creativity has its hands full right now in charting out the first few weeks of the year. It’s a busy time, and my mind is so focused on this goal, that I haven’t time for much of anything else. I used to bemoan this, worrying that I wasn’t writing, but I’ve learned in the past few years that listening to my inner voice about where my energies should go is also good.
Sometimes, this is what creativity looks like, and sometimes, the classroom is where my writing voice becomes clearest.