I love when my students show me up.
Full disclosure: I can be a bit of a know-it-all, and that’s a dangerous personality trait when you’re teaching. It usually goes one of two ways when knowitalldom rears it faux-expertise head. Either you have a captive audience, looking to you as the deity of all learning, dangerously unquestioning of whatever it is you spew out. Or you have a skeptical audience, angry that your domination leaves little room for their own questions, thoughts, and explorations. Your students see you as brilliant or egomaniacal. Ugh–neither is the teacher personality I want.
(This, by the way, is not a new problem for me. My college roommates would get exasperated with me whenever they’d ask some obscure question and I’d have an answer. Because I’m also a convincing b.s.er. And so whenever I’d give any factual answer or explanation, they’d have to look at me askance, trying to read whether this was from my vast vat of ridiculous and unimportant knowledge, or whether it was completely made up. Even as a kid with my family, I’d feel compelled to share explanations/facts/trivia about every historical site in Chicago. Or I’d come up with smart-sounding explanations for scientific and historical phenomena and share them with anyone…because it’s fun to figure things out and to test out your theories. I can’t help it–I guess I don’t like not knowing. And for some reason I feel compared to share what I know–or what I’ve made up–with whomever will listen. Funny that this is a personality trait that drives me INSANE in anyone else.)
So I love it when my students show me up, when they teach me and humble me. I need that. And it’s one of the most fundamental reasons I love teaching: For all of my know-it-all tendencies, I want learning to be collaborative and genuine, and students–from middle schoolers to undergrads–often demand that it be that way. They’ll tolerate little else.
Take my student teaching seminar. We spend a good chunk of the semester assembling our e-portfolios, which document our growth as teachers. There’s a dangerous dynamic here: The students want me to be the e-portfolio expert, to tell them what to do and how to do it. While I oblige as much as possible, I also know that I’m not the expert. This is such an individual and personal reflective tool, one that I’m only beginning to understand. In fact, my students repeatedly teach me how little I do understand about artifacts, reflection, and teacher growth.
“… a means of reflecting on individual students and their work in order to improve a teacher’s understanding of that child and, therefore, how better to teach and reach that child. The child study attempts to “make the child visible [as] a unique person who is trying to make sense of the world.” The intent is not to change the child but “to help the teacher see the child in a new light, and use the child’s interests and values to create harmony in the child’s school life.” For our purposes, the child study is an opportunity to interrogate the motivations and behaviors of one of our students—perhaps a difficult child behaviorally, one who is struggling academically, one who you are trying to challenge, or someone you simply can’t make a connection with. This is an opportunity for targeted, group reflection on one of your students.”
Case 1: M. taught me that I really didn’t understand how powerful artifacts are for understanding and interrogating your own teaching. Every semester, I ask my students to do a child study (Child Study PDF). A colleague of mine gave me this idea/exercise my first semester teaching undergrads, and I’ve stuck with it since. Basically, the child study is:
Students present a detailed description/profile of this student, and then as a group, we brainstorm, ask questions, and generally help the student teacher better understand the child. It’s a great opportunity for focused attention on one classroom, one issue, one student. But it hasn’t always been very successful or meaningful for students.
That is, until M. taught me how powerful it could be. When it was M.’s turn to go, not only did she describe her focal student, but she brought examples of student work, photos of the child, copies of assessments, even the contents of the child’s book box! As she described this student and her central question about her, M. used all of these ‘artifacts’ to show how she knew what she knew. It was powerful, and a giant a-ha moment for me.
Before M.’s child study, the students and I had thought of artifacts as how we perform ‘good teaching.’ What’s a good lesson plan? What’s a good activity? Where’s an award I can scan in? And then, when I reflect, how can I explain it’s goodness? M., however, turned that on its hard. From her child study, I saw first hand how artifacts are the things that teachers use, day in and day out, to understand our practice and our students. Approached this way, a portfolio page becomes less about performing good teaching than authentically showing our reflection and the evolution of our practice.
Now, all students bring in artifacts with their child study. And they use the child study and its artifacts as an e-portfolio page, with their reflection focused on how they understand this child, and what changed in their classroom as a result of this study.
Thank goodness for M., who understood far more deeply than I did what it takes to understand a child.
Case 2: S. was our tech savvy guru last semester. He tried to bring technology into his lessons, he used Power Points for our class work when other people just chatted informally, and he worried publically about the little technology exposure his students had. So leave it to S. to get all technologically experimental on even our most mundane assignments.
During their student teaching semester, students are asked to design an original unit of study and to hand in a copy of that unit of study to me for feedback before it is taught. This is one of those assignments they groan and roll their eyes at. What a hoop! Not only do their cooperating teachers not make printed unit plans, but many of them don’t even design units–the curriculum is handed to them. Plus, it usually seems at odds with the e-portfolio: It’s taking away precious time from that behemoth of a project. But I’ve trudged on, trying to communicate how important this is, but usually to no avail.
Then along came S. He actually handed in his unit plan late, at the end of the semester rather than the two weeks before the unit was taught. But he made up for this tardiness in other important ways. I was a little worried when I finally got his unit plan in my inbox, five gajillion gigamegajumbo later. This thing took about twenty minutes to open! What was going on?
The wait was worth it: Embedded in his unit plan were artifacts. Samples of student work, videos of his teaching, photos of the class working, screen snapshots from the computer program he used, copies of his assessments, even email chains with other teachers when collaborating on the unit. Holy cow was this powerful! Not only did he have all of his lesson plans, but he had evidence of what they looked like in practice, and evaluative reflection after each discussing what he’d do differently! Many of these lessons then turned directly into portfolio pages. The artifacts, the lessons, the reflection…it was all right there, embedded in the document. His unit plan was actually a living, breathing, reflective toolkit on how to teach a unit on natural selection and evolution.
S. brought me to another a-ha moment. So many of our assignments were presented as unrelated to the portfolio, when in fact, if done right, they were the portfolio! So this semester, I’m changing three things. First, artifacts are everywhere. I’m asking students to embed artifacts into their weekly journals and to use these artifacts as the basis for their weekly reflection. Second, I’m asking students to revisit their lesson and unit plans after they’ve been taught (I still think it’s important to share your work-in-progress and get feedback on your plans before you teach) and to add artifacts to those plans, discussing–perhaps via editing comments–what those artifacts say about the teaching and learning that occurred. Finally, I am encouraging every student to hand in their assignments as portfolio pages, to see that the e-portfolio is really just a formal documentation of the thinking, reflecting, and progressing that is going on all the time in our teaching.
Thank goodness for S. and for M. They taught me how little I really understood when it came to artifacts, reflection, and the e-portfolio.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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