Mentor or Teacher?

Monday will start my first full day sitting and watching someone else teach my class. I’m not sure how I feel about this. In theory, I’m pretty excited because I get to shape the next generation of teacher. In theory, I can use my 19 years of experience, my knowledge of young adolescents, my knowledge of literacy – both best practices and theory – to help mold this young teacher-to-be. That thought alone is pretty awe-inspiring. So what could be wrong with that?

In theory – nothing is wrong with that. The problem is that I’m not quite ready to let go. I suppose admitting this is the first step. And I’m admitting this in a public space, so it should be even better right? Hi, my name is Cherylann, and I’m a YA Lit addict. And that’s the whole problem in a nutshell.

There are many things I love about teaching middle schoolers. Just a few weeks ago I was giving a test on The Pearl by John Steinbeck. My seventh graders were nervous – understandably so. In an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, I wished them luck and then said, “May the force be with you.”

Without missing a beat, one of my cherubs responded, “And also with you.”

And a split second later, a voice from the other side of the room chimed in, “No, it’s ‘And with your spirit.’” And we had a belly laugh. The kids hunkered down and took their test. Exchanges like that make teaching worth far more than my paycheck.

I also love teaching young adolescents because I’m able to reignite their love of reading. When we look at reading in schools, elementary kids love to read. The first time they read it’s magic. They can’t wait to read a chapter book. Reading is cool. Sometime around fifth or sixth grade reading stops being magical and cool. It becomes a chore. I’m not sure why this happens. I suppose if I taught those grades, it might be something I focused on. However, I teach seventh and eighth grade. I know that the overwhelming majority of my students come to my class not reading. Oh sure, they read what I assign (hopefully). They read websites and magazines. They read all the time. They don’t acknowledge what they do as reading, and neither does the school. One of the first things I do is get them to realize how much they read. Wilhelm and Smith tout this as important in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, and I agree.

My next step is to give students time and space to read. And so I do. We all read. I read. They read. Because I’m reading, the kids realize that I value reading. I talk to the kids about what I’m reading. Then they talk to me about what they’re reading. Forging connections with students, something that’s so important in middle school, begins and is cemented through our book discussions. Then I strive to put the right book in the hands of the right student. The student who is most reluctant to read usually hasn’t found that book – the one that grabs them. The one that’s unputdownable.

And the year continues on. We are a community of readers, sharing books, talking books, and learning together. Each month begins with a Schmidt’s Pick. The kids walk into the room anxiously awaiting my pick for that month. If I don’t begin with the Schmidt’s Pick, I hear about it. February 1 is Wednesday. The students will be expecting a Schmidt’s Pick. I have a title for them. However, I’m not the one teaching.

My challenge this semester has been to help my student teacher understand the importance of reader’s workshop, of reading along with the kids, of knowing the books the kids are talking about. I’ve modeled, just as I do for the kids. I’ve explained how I’ve shaped my reader’s workshop and shamelessly name dropped so she could connect her graduate school reading to application in the classroom, I’ve printed out articles for her to read, and I’ve flat-out said you need to read when the kids are reading. While I’d like to be critical of the student teacher, I can’t. She’s doing a nice job. The kids are responding well to her. Her pedagogy’s solid. She’s teaching the way the college has taught her to teach. And therein lies the problem.

The secondary education program at our local state college, which happens to be my alma mater, focuses on teaching literature to high school students – specifically upperclassmen. To the college’s credit, they do place the students in both a high school setting and middle school setting. However, they are not preparing their students to teach literacy. They are preparing them to teach English. There’s nothing wrong with that – except….

Except if they look at the standards, they will see that students are required to read a variety of texts for a variety of purposes and write a variety of texts for a variety of purposes and audiences. And yes, this is very simplified, but what a disservice our colleges and universities are doing to the next generation of teachers and students if their ELA teacher candidates come out only prepared to teach literature – and lit criticism at that.

Luckily for me, this current student teacher is the fourth I’ve had in my career and the fourth from this particular institution, so I know what I’m up against. What frightens me is that my first student teacher came to me about 10 years ago. In 10 years, I’ve seen no change in the teacher prep program. And I’ve seen HUGE changes in the k-12 setting. I’ve watched our high school move away from a traditional English program and move to one that incorporates writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop alongside their lit crit.

And so the cooperating teacher’s job becomes intensive. Help the student teacher learn to develop good, sound lesson plans, help them learn classroom management skills, help them learn how to juggle the paperwork and time management, and teach them what it means to teach literacy and not English. And do all of this on our prep period.

And so Wednesday is February 1. After placing all of my thoughts on the subject out in this blog, I think I might take 5 minutes of her lesson and introduce the Schmidt’s Pick for February. One more thing to model. And for March … I think it will be her turn to chime in for the Schmidt’s Pick. What are your thoughts?

Much to ponder on this sunny Sunday.

Until next time… See YA.

Posted in Independent Reading/SSR/Reader's Workshop, Schmidt's Pick | Tagged as: , , , , ,

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