More of the Backstage of Teaching

It was a hectic and stressful few weeks in my job as a director of instructional media services. Covering multiple libraries with staff out on jury duty and bereavement leave, coordinating the logistics of a textbook adoption process, taking science teachers on a field trip to RAFT to support their interests in student inquiry and investigation, running a one-week open house of our special collections materials for science teachers, preparing for professional development activities next week for more than 150 science and ELA teachers, school board meetings that ran late into the night, all came on top of the regular work of the department. But while juggling too many projects can often "empty me out," two great collaborative experiences this week "filled me up."


I was invited to present about "history and literacy" to a group of history teachers in a nearby town. They had been working on increasing their knowledge of literacy instruction, with the help of teacher-consultants of the writing project who were English teachers. And they admitted that they had learned a lot and even tried some things they learned, "once, maybe twice...*big sigh*..." They responded immediately to my background as a history teacher who used a lot of reading and writing. 

My presentation was about the journey of my T-BAR team's work, how we focused on what it means to "do history," how the Common Core for English and Literacy respects our disciplinary literacy, how we learned and implemented many more strategies to get students to read and write like historians, and what that looked like in our students' work. I showed this by taking them through a series of four lessons in a unit about women in 20th century US history that incorporates multiple strategies and ideas from our study. And I showed them a lot of examples of work from my four focal students, who are a combination of good and not-so-good writers (and 3 of the 4 are ELLs).

The audience's biggest surprise? That using disciplinary literacy practices doesn't mean writing essays every day or even every week, but there is writing almost every day: arguments, "they say" statements, "quote sandwiches," always practicing ways to express what they are finding the their readings and how they are interpreting history.

Another take-away: all those strategies they tried once or twice? I tried them 40 times and things started getting pretty good after the tenth or twelfth time!

For me, the most important part of the day was that we often stopped and discussed the "backstage" work of teaching, something I feel more and more strongly about. It was helpful for them to see what I do with students (show, not tell) but not enough. They had to know why I chose that strategy and not another, what my rationale was for those documents instead of others, and how I read and planned with document Y but learned first period that I had to change my thinking once I saw how students responded to the document. None of that work is explicit or, many times, even visible to an onlooker. It's what's going on in an experienced teacher's mind as she makes decisions that drive her instructional practices and students' learning opportunities based on her intentions for her students' learning.


You know how it feels when you get (the luxury of) extended time with really smart colleagues to explore new ideas while we all bring our collective and individual expertise to bear on the issue at hand? How it feels when people with knowledge and confidence trust each other enough to say, "I don't know," and "I have an idea," and "I don't see it like that" and "I need to know more" and "What do you think?" and "Help me understand"? How it feels to spend five hours intensively, thoughtfully working collaboratively on a problem with people you respect and can learn from? Well, that was my Friday. I was invited to my county's Office of Education with other ELA- and ELD-focused educators (teachers and administrators) to read, discuss, and prepare a response to our states new ELA/ELD framework.

California's new (draft) ELA/ELD Framework was released in December for a 60-day public review and feedback. Together, we read chapters and discussed our findings, so that we could let the state know what we think is needed to improve the framework as a resource for ELA/ELD teachers.

Our first reaction was that is was wonderful for the state to integrate ELA/ELD, to put them together with no question, to assume that they must be integrated in every classroom where ELLs are found (in California, that would be most classrooms). But after that, we had more suggestions for improvement than we had kudos.

Here's the most important point we wanted to make: The framework includes "snapshots" and "vignettes" showing the application of effective instructional strategies in literacy in classrooms, but those stories rarely show the backstage of teaching. Where is the teacher's intentionality of practice? (<= my new favorite phrase coined by a member of the group--hat tip to Alice Welch--to describe the most important element of all the backstage prep work of teaching)

This stood out because, in a few stories, that intentionality of practice was quite clear. In one, in a short parenthetical statement, the author noted that the teacher had chosen to use Goldilocks and the Three Bears for teaching a lesson on retelling a story because the objects in the story (bowl, chair, bed) provided a kind of mnemonic that students could use in their re-telling activity to prompt their memory and language. That's actually extremely important information, knowing her intention. Because without that, I could re-create that lesson, use the same book, do a good job, and give my students effective literacy instruction for one lesson. But WITH that information about the teacher's intention,I would have more knowledge and understanding of why certain stories or books support students' instruction more than others. Then I could begin to think of similar books and stories and repeat that effective instruction many times that year.


I can see that much of T-BAR's work together has been about exactly that idea of purpose and intention. In our meetings and work together, we share and discuss our intentions, our reasons for teaching what and how we do, so that we can become aware of the kinds of decisions others are making and why, and then apply those, as they work for our own students. If we were merely observing each other, that wouldn't be visible. But in collaboration, in a community of practice, our intentionality of practice is the essence of what we share.

X-Posted at Know ELLs



Most Recent: February 21, 2014
Sarah Jencks

Really inspiring, Debra!

I am excited to share this post with our teachers and teaching artists in the Ford's Theatre Oratory Initiative. Because they come to their work either through the lens of the artist or through the lens of the history teacher, finding a way to blend those two disciplines through performance and oratory has been central to our work.  You all are so good at blogging, too. I need to take lessons from you!

Dave McIntire

The value of educators talking shop instead

"It's what's going on in an experienced teacher's mind as she makes decisions..." I love it!!!

I often get asked by collegues why I go to so many summer conferences. I used to be apologetic-I didn't go to 'education' school and I our school isn't 'certified' the same way public schools are. I didn't know stuff that I assumed was taught in pedegogy classes. What I found was I learned more by asking questions of seasoned teachers than a semester in most education classes I've audited. In addition, I had a former teacher who now works as a profession development director take me on as a project the first few years I taught history. Those quesitons and that investment allowed me the opportunity to figure out my 'style' as I went.

I tell folks now that ask why I go: I get the chance to talk shop with amazing teachers. We compare notes. We challenge each other to explain why we do what we do and how can we do it better. It's a master class on education on top of whatever content the program is teaching. These are also the teachers I keep in contact with during the year for mid-year course corrections. 

Thanks for a thought-provoking article. dm

Debra Schneider

Thanks for your kind words

I really enjoyed those experiences and relived them while writing about them!