As the school year moves into first term, I have been thinking about my all time favourite year of teaching. Over coffee with a couple of close colleagues it all came back and I felt that pleasant rush of excitement as I walked home later.
We had a district early years team with one or two reps from each school. The meetings rotated from school to school and were held after school hours with a pizza dinner served. Even though I had four children at home, my husband was accommodating enough to take over and give me that one evening a month free to indulge my appetite for all things “teaching”. Our early years team got to visit each other’s teaching environments and every meeting opened with a little “tour” of the classroom we were meeting in. While the equipment and the organization of the room was always of interest, the ‘why’ of the room looked as it did was a richer conversation. We all had the “same stuff” but how it was used and why we had made the decisions we had was fascinating. We found that we were able to personalize our contexts so that others could understand that what mattered about the experiences we created for the individual children we worked with. The team from my school consisted of myself and my teaching colleague. We carried the things we had discussed at the team meetings back to our own school where we couldn’t stop talking about the possibilities. It led us to arrange to do recess supervision together — twice the amount of time on the playground but also twice as much time to talk with each other and with the children. We found that our plans about how to implement the curriculum were coming from what we knew about our context… our students.
In a radical move, we proposed a change to the principal. We would combine our classes and our classrooms and teach together. My classroom was a blended first- and second-grade and my partner’s was a blended second- and third-grade class. We were convinced that we would more than double our enthusiasm for teaching and not double the duties each of us had. Much to our shock, he agreed and the next year we were a team with open doors between our adjoining classrooms. The next year was my first “favorite-year-of-all-time”.
During that “favorite year” one girl in first grade stands out. Within the first day or two of school she informally demonstrated she could tell tall tales better than anyone…ever! Rather than stifling her enthusiasm for story-telling by suggesting she was making things up and grumbling about her sense of honesty, my teaching partner and I embraced her skill and built our plans around it. The year revolved around stories of tall tales, legends, and fantasies. By contrasting them with narrative non-fiction and informational texts, the students learned to distinguish reality from make-believe and everyone had a favorite they liked to think and talk about. They may have been in grade one, but they had taught each other about genre. We all were fanatical about reading and writing in different genres and trying new ways on for size. First grade students were able to classify the little stories they heard, wrote and read. The older students motivated the younger ones to read more, to listen more, to write more, and to find others who enjoyed the same types of text as they did or suggest different texts to each other. All the while, they were all having fun and the amount of time-on-task was amazing!
As we welcome new students into our schools, I wonder how much we still are able to do that. Are we able to wrap experiences around the students? Do we greet the new immigrant student, or a student whose home life has changed, or a student who has just moved across the country, or a student who is differently abled with the same respect for their individuality, their diversity and their hidden expertise as my partner and I did with the students in my first favorite year of teaching?
As P. David Pearson says, “Children are who they are. They know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish our students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience. We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.” I’ve had other favorite years since, but I’ve learned that harnessing the power of diversity makes teaching my “favorite” thing to do!