Student Voice

Recently, I overheard a teacher talking about that elusive element of the rubric: voice. “I have no idea how to teach it.” I don’t think she’s alone in this sentiment.

In our classrooms, personalities shine through. Even when I’m guest teaching in a classroom for a short time, individual personalities begin to reveal themselves. The question then becomes, how do we get these personalities to shine through on paper?

If we watch a typical class of students write, they tend to write slowly, word by word, trying to make each word and idea perfect as they go. For most students, there is no room for creativity or personality within this process.

Voice tend to emerge when students do not worry about or overthink their writing. In the spirit of Peter Elbow, I remind students to shut off the critical thinking side of the brain during their initial writing time and let the creative part of the brain take over. The critical thinking brain might tell us that our words or thoughts are not good enough, or that we aren’t using perfect spelling or grammar. Therefore, during our initial writing time, the critical thinking part of our brain tends to get in the way, stifling creativity and preventing student voice from emerging.

But when we encourage our students to just write, freely, no concern for perfection, personalities have a way of weaselling their way into the writing. And of course, once they have words on paper, we can teach our students to turn their critical thinking brains back on to engage in the processes of revision and editing.

But, consider this, how do we tell students to go back and add ‘personality’ to their writing?

A perplexing prospect…

Great Expectations

As I move from school to school in my role as language arts consultant, I meet hundreds of students in dozens of classrooms. The dynamics within the classrooms are different; student experiences and family situations are different; school philosophies and focuses are sometimes different, too. And yet… all students – despite the circumstances – benefit from high expectations.

Now, I know this. It’s logical. I’ve witnessed it in my own classrooms time and time again. But this idea has been reinforced the more students that I meet.

I strive to be clear, reasonable, and sympathetic to student circumstance. But, ultimately, I expect students to engage in what we are doing and expend some energy. In a class with high expectations, we find rigour and students motivated to learn.

Great achievements are the result of great expectations.

A Learning Journey

Last week, a teacher sent me a ‘thank-you-for-taking-a-chance-on-me’ kind of message. It’s been five or six years since we’ve worked together and he commented on how much he has changed as a teacher since his first experiences in the classroom.

When I think back to my first years in this profession, I shudder. I wouldn’t say that I was ineffective but I was certainly not as effective as I am now. In many ways, the first few years of a teacher’s classroom life could be considered survival.

Teaching is complicated, challenging, and complex. We must learn how to interact with students, how to engage them, how to plan effectively, and bring that plan to life during instruction. We must learn to monitor and assess student understanding and provide effective feedback. We must learn how to accommodate the wide range of academic, social, and emotional needs in our classrooms. We must learn how to communicate with parents: parents of all backgrounds, perspectives, and temperaments. We must also learn to be supportive and sensitive to the many life experiences and challenging circumstances so many of our students face.

So yes, teaching is complex; it is also exhilarating, exciting, and wonderfully rewarding. We cannot expect anyone to walk into the classroom during their first years and immediately be able to juggle the many balls in the air trying new tricks all the while.

Teaching is a journey. The best teachers learn from those around them, take time to reflect, make adjustments to their practice, and understand that their own learning is never finished.

Taking a chance on a new teacher – necessary! We’ve all been there, after all.

Breaking Barriers

Last night we saw The Tempest at the Citadel Theatre. This was not a typical Shakespearean experience, however. In addition to the rain through much of the performance and the inclusion of lines from other plays, the dialogue was both signed and spoken by a combination of deaf and hearing actors. The play was not signed at the side of the stage as you may have seen in other circumstances. No, the American Sign Language was very much a part of the play itself.

Watching these actors break through barriers with each other and with the audience got me thinking about the students in our classrooms. Some don’t have full access to our teaching because of a language barrier, a disability, or even the challenges presented by the printed word.

How can we try to understand the limitations they feel and obstacles they face? What can we do to support them on their learning journeys?

Sometimes the accommodations are significant. But often, the changes aren’t complicated and the adjustments, fairly minor. And yet, what a difference for our students. When we are intentional about providing supports for our students who may fall outside the norm, all students benefit. Universal design at its best.