Teaching is an Art

Kristina Peterson offers us this beautiful piece on teaching.  Enjoy.  ~EMP

then a different question presented itself: “Am I a good teacher?” And he had to answer, “No, I’m not – not always. For teaching is an art: Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t” (Strafford, The Muses Among Us 2003, 70).

Once upon a time there was a young teacher who set out to change the world. She quickly realized that she needed to start in her own classroom first. This is her story.

She began thinking about her love affair with books. This brought her back to her childhood and her imaginary friend Gizmo. She would read for hours with Gizmo. And she would make up story after story where he was the star. Gizmo stayed with her through pre-school and her two years of kindergarten (she was deemed too “immature” for first grade the first time around). A teacher told her in first grade that imaginary friends did not exist. Her therapist (from the parental divorce) said her over active imagination was a problem because she needed to fit in. She needed to make friends. Nobody wanted to be friends with the weird girl with the imaginary friend. Her creativity was squashed.

She became a teacher and during her very first back to school night a parent asked her how much creative writing would be done in her class. She was a little unsure how to answer this question—grad school taught her that academic writing was more highly valued. She told the mother that they would do some creative writing – this seemed like a safe answer. The mother smiled and explained that her daughter’s 8th grade teacher squashed the girl’s creative writing by dictating novels and forbidding creative expression. Sadly, creative writing fell by the wayside that year, and the following year as well.

Thinking back upon myself as a young child and new teacher makes me realize that I do not want to be the teacher that squashes creativity or tells a student what they think or feel is not right or of no value.

This is my plan:

  • I will expect SSR every day, for ten minutes, in an independent novel and all levels I teach.
  • I will do this without asking permission.
  • I will calculate reading rates, collect articles and gather data to back me up.
  • I will invite students to read novels with me by changing they way I instruct – journal responses, peer – to – peer discussions, letters to me and/or each other.
  • I will teach my students, not my content because if we really want to create readers, we need to meet them where they are.
  • I will not use study guides as “these devalue students’ readings” (Broz 2011).
  • I will take on a new motto: “Part of the craft of my teaching will be doing what I want to do and pretending it’s what they want me to do.”

I’d like to say “and they all lived happily ever after”.  But, that part has not been written yet.

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Article by Kristina Peterson

Kristina Peterson is a certified English teacher and has been teaching at Exeter High School since 2008. She has a B.A. in Literature from the University of Southern Maine and an M.A.T. from George Fox University. She keeps in touch with the ever-changing educational practices through extensive continuing education at UNH. She recently presented at the 2012 National Convention for Teachers of English in Las Vegas about the importance of choice in reading and writing. She co-advises the poetry section of Inkwell (EHS literary magazine), the EHS Writer's Club, Page Turners (a book club), and the annual Poetry Out Loud contest. She blogs for The Inspired Classroom about the importance of maintaining creativity in the classroom and is leading a session at the third annual Teacher Arts Retreat this summer.
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  1. Jen says:

    Hi, Kristina. I am currently enrolled in your sister-in-law’s class on arts integration in Amesbury. As a high school teacher in this course, I am enjoying a revival of my connection to the arts, and I am figuring out how that will transfer to lessons for my students. Any “arts” ideas for a unit on teaching The Odyssey by Homer? I like what you said about student-centered approaches and meeting the students where they are. I’m just curious (or spacey)…what did you mean by the following: “I will not use study guides as ‘these devalue students’ readings'”? To what kind of study guides are you referring? Anyway, thank you for the article. I, too, will plow ahead, will find a balance between doing what I want to do and doing what the powers at be would like me to do (trends and buzz words and all).

  2. Kristina Peterson says:

    Hi Jen,

    Thank you very much for your comment (and reading my post). My classroom has been transformed since writing that blog and I love talk about it. You had a question about the use of study guides. That, and a lot of my new approach to reading, actually stemmed from an article from the English Journal called “Not Reading: The 800 Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” and a discussion on that article that can be found here: http://curriculumconversations.blogspot.com/2011/07/william-j-broz-not-reading-800-pound.html
    In a nut shell, Broz brings to light the fact that many (he says most) students do not read the whole class novels we give them, and instead use the study guides to copy off each other, or to sit during class discussions and listen to what everyone else is saying and then just say it all over again. When I thought about my classes, I realized that this is really true. So, with the inspiration of that, and some wonderful summer classes at the UNH Literacy Institute, I basically changed my approach to teaching reading. This blog was actually part of a paper for UNH. And I am happy to say, that so far I have done everything I have said I would do and have even inspired some of my colleagues at Exeter. Instead of study guides, we journal, and instead of 100% whole class reads, I focus on 50% independent and 50% whole class (short stories, plays, poems, articles are included here).

    As far as an arts approach to The Odyssey – I would recommended checking out the English Companion Ning (http://englishcompanion.ning.com). It’s a great source for new ideas. I have also seen some great results with multigenre projects over the past few years and I could see exploring some of Homer’s themes in different genres (poems, art work, essay, letters, journals, maybe even a board game – all student created of course) as being very rewarding for you and your students. For this, I recommend the Ning again and Tom Romano’s book on the topic (and actually his class at UNH this coming summer).

    And good luck on your own journey to find that balance we all need and deserve! I’d love to hear how it turns out for you!


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