Teach the books, touch the heart

On Friday, the teacher’s association to which I belong hosted its  AGM and  subject council days. Last year we were treated to a keynote by Rick Wormeli and this year Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith spoke. Both last year and this I was inspired to do better in the classroom.

My personal feeling has always been that we should be exposing children to more literature, not less. That instead of having them read and then answer a bunch of comprehension questions designed to catch them up because they haven’t read, we should be giving them opportunities to talk and write about what they think. In real life, when faced with a problem, we’re not given multiple choices in order to make the best decisions. We must weigh the options and choose.

Mr. Esquith’s fifth graders do a full length Shakespearean production every year. Esquith himself loves Shakespeare and his passion for the Bard spills over into the lives of his students, mostly impoverished, mostly not native English speakers. You can’t tell me that an experience like that doesn’t make a difference in their lives, a difference far more important than a score on a multiple choice test.

Every year at about this time I start to think about how I can improve my teaching in the classroom. I don’t think about how I can improve my test results – I think about how I can do my job better; how to introduce kids to great books, turn them into life-long readers, get them to think about how they connect to the material we read, show them how to write.  It’s not PC to say – but I don’t care about the tests as much as I care about their engagement. I want them to discover themselves in what they read, to experience the feeling of kinship with a character, to understand themselves and this world a little bit better.

At least, that’s the goal.

Teacher Claire Needell Hollander’s  opinion piece in the April 20th edition of the New York Times, Teach the Books, Touch the Heart, talks about this focus on testing  and what is lost because of it.  Teaching to the test is not teaching.

Twenty years ago, when I began as a teacher, I had this romantic notion that the classroom – my classroom – would be this amazing space with books and conversation. Yes, we’d do books together as a group, but we’d also read independently. We’d write, not just essays, but lots of different things because unless you go off to do a degree in English, you’ll probably never write an academic essay about theme again in your life after high school. Kids still need to know how to write well, though.

I didn’t stay in teaching very long. I just never settled into it; I felt like I was always playing catch up. My ego kept bashing up against these kids who just didn’t seem to like me. (Probably because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.) Fast forward 15 years and here I am, back in the classroom…and I love every single day with those kids. My notion of what my English class should be like hasn’t changed and I try every day to balance that notion with the prescribed curriculum. Some days are more successful than others.

I have the experts on my side though. My gurus, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, talk the talk and walk the walk. And every day I get a little bit closer, I think, to teaching the books and touching the hearts.