The opening days of school can be overwhelming, even for a veteran English Department Chair, mentor, or student-teacher supervisor. Inevitably, you’ll have new administration goals for the year that must be implemented and clarified for returning teachers. There are the inherent problems of adjusting classroom assignments, the frustrations of locating missing textbooks, the tedium of following up on equipment repair requests, and the scheduling of essential meetings with new or novice teachers.
Many English language arts leaders also teach classes themselves and are absorbed with the demands any classroom teacher faces at the start of a new school year. Consequently, during these first decisive days, even the most conscientious department chair may postpone the one-on-one meetings with the new or novice teachers until a week or two into the term. As an English department chair, I am often asked by beginning teachers to quickly tell them what they need to know to get a good start in their first year of full-time teaching. The answer is usually, “No, I can’t tell you quickly. But, here are a few things you can be doing now and some ideas to think about. We can meet in a week or so and talk more then.” By that time, those teachers already may be feeling swamped and discouraged.
To help prevent this demoralizing experience, I want to share some of the responses and advice I’ve learned to offer these new and novice teachers. While the comments probably relate to most secondary English language arts teachers, I’ve directed them to those who also may be teaching in the middle school because their issues can differ from high school teachers. For ease in reading, I’ve organized my remarks around the journalism format of Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?
Who Will I Be Teaching, Really?
One of the more important tasks of teachers is to get to know their students quickly. You see, teaching is more than dispensing information. Teaching is cyclical; it is not complete until learning takes place. So during the first few days of school, successful teachers use a variety of strategies to discover what students already know and are able to do, and then adapting their lessons for a wide range of students (Tchudi & Tchudi, 1999). The sooner teachers know their students—not just their names—the sooner real teaching and learning begin.
Teachers, especially new ones, seldom have much say about whom they will teach, and the students who walk into the room arrive with varying degrees of commitment to learning. More than once I was assigned to teach three different grades requiring as many different preparations. I learned quickly that the more skillful you become at getting to know your students and assessing their specific needs, the more students you will reach and teach successfully.
The primary challenges in teaching adolescents are the physical, emotional, and social issues that can overwhelm them in uneven waves from day to day and that distract them from learning (Caught in the Middle, 1987). Emotionally, with the hormone changes, both the girls and the boys can be manically mischievous one day and dismally depressed the next—from belle of the ball to ostracized pariah, from big man on campus to bait for the bully. Still, we must teach them.
In addition to these unavoidable issues, you may be working among a cultural population very new to you. It will be important for you to remain open to what you can learn from them that will help you make the understanding and application of the English language arts relevant to them and create a classroom environment that nurtures and respects them while building on their prior knowledge and experience. And with different cultures come different languages (see Shafer, 2001) and code switching (where students alternate from one form of English to another; see Wheeler & Swords, 2006). In any case, one key to a successful school year is your getting to know the students you teach and adapting what you learn from and about them to what you know about effective English language arts instruction.
What Must I Teach?
It’s more than reading and writing. If you’ll take a look at the English language arts standards published by your school, district, or state, you’ll find that they include both content skills and habits of mind. We ELA teachers are charged with presenting lessons in which students experience— read, talk about, write about—an array of literature, both print and non-print, fiction and nonfiction (Standards, 1996 ), and use a variety of resources: technology and library. With the new Common Core Standards that many states are adopting, the challenge heightens even for veteran educators (Common Core, 2010). Ultimately, our common goal is to help our students expand their understanding of themselves and others, learn to appreciate how reading and writing, speaking and listening, viewing and representing visually can make them independent and productive members of society (Jackson and Davis, 2000), and to use technology skillfully and responsibly. Of course, we’re also expected to assess student learning and report these observations in a variety of formats to a variety of people—parents, other teachers, counselors, etc. A big task, but a manageable one.
When in the School Year?
Students in the middle and high school grades are expected to learn to read increasingly more demanding literature in a variety of genres and to write for a wider range of purposes and audiences (Parents’Guide, 2006). Your task is to determine what the students know already and then to move them along as efficiently as possible through the curriculum you’re given. But how do you use preparation and class time to achieve these goals? When should certain skills be taught?
First, do your best to understand what you’re expected to achieve by the end of the school year, and then work backwards (Wiggins and Mc-Tighe, 2005). What kinds of lessons will allow you to meet your requirements? What literature and modes of writing must you teach? What resources are available to you? Which professionals in your school setting are available to assist you?
You’ll want to block out the semester and then subdivide these blocks into units and lessons. Be sure to take into consideration the school calendar—assemblies, concerts, sports events, holidays, and vacations will impact the time you’ll have available to teach. Keep in mind that the time before and after these events will drain emotional energy from your students. Athletes and their fans may be totally consumed with thoughts of “the big game” or the post-season chances, so you, the skillful teacher, will plan class activities that make the most of your time with each class; some days, that will mean designing lessons that use physical activity to channel pent-up energy, while other days will focus on more cerebral activity.
Where Will I Be Teaching?
Believe it or not, the physical space in which you teach and how you organize it will have an impact on how well you teach . . . and feel. Few new teachers have much choice about the room to which they are assigned, but you can make the space work for you.
If you will be sharing space, get to know your “roommates” and talk about access to desks, storage, and display space; determine which resources you’ll be sharing and which you must supply yourself. For instance, if those using the room are teaching the same grades or courses, you may be able to coordinate units so you can leave in the classroom those resources and supplies you share. When I’ve shared rooms, my colleagues and I usually split the bulletin board space, often designating a common space to post general notices we both want in view all the time. Reutzel and Cooter (2003) say, “classroom displays are intended to immerse students . . . in an environment of interesting and functional print” (p. 89). Surprisingly, we found that both the older and younger students enjoyed seeing what the others were doing. The older ones would reflect on what they’d done in earlier grades, and younger students would project to the future when they would have those more sophisticated assignments. Colleagues would see what the other had done and get ideas for expanding or modifying our own lessons. All can benefit when sharing rooms.
You’ll also want to have an efficient way of storing and moving your materials from place to place. A two-shelf rolling cart worked well for me. On it would be a set of hanging files that I’d want to have in the room during classes and in the office during prep time—grade book, seating charts, lesson plans, textbooks, and other resources (dictionary, USB drive, etc.). I’d also have any supplies or handouts for the day’s (or week’s) lessons. Some teachers also kept a box of extra office supplies, such as pencils, staplers, scissors, tape and even a box of tissues. Many now add their own computer tablet and other digital devices.
Determine whether or not your room will have stationary or movable seats. Desks? Tables and chairs? What size tables? How easy to move? The more flexible the seating, the more configurations available for different lessons. Teach your students how to move the furniture quickly— explain it precisely or draw it on the board—and then give them until the count of ten to move the seats, reseat themselves, and give you their attention.
How accessible is technology? Do you have a smart classroom, already set up for high-tech instruction? Are computer labs available? Still using laptops on carts? Are students assigned laptops? Do they bring their own cell phones through which they can access the internet? What internet sites are blocked at your school? A lesson plan begun at home could fall apart if students cannot access the sites needed.
If you know what you have, what you want, and plan ahead, your clear expectations will usually get results. Of course, if things don’t work well the first time, simply rethink them, get advice, and try again. Also keep in mind the needs of the next class; I used a kitchen timer to go off five to seven minutes before the end of class, allowing just enough time to reorganize seating, review the lesson for the day, and remind the students of the homework assignment. Just remember: Anticipate. Plan. Execute. The Golden Rule doesn’t hurt, either.
Why Must I Teach a Certain Way?
Why plan multiple ways to teach the same lesson? First, because people learn and demonstrate understanding in different ways (Cunningham & Allington, 2006; Jackson & Davis, 2000; Tchudi & Tchudi, 1999). Second, flexibility creates interest for the students and you. It is as important for you to enjoy teaching as it is for students to enjoy learning. Teaching is your job, but it also can be fun devising clever and effective ways to share your knowledge and love of the English language arts. Third, the new Common Core Standards are best taught that way – demonstrating twenty-first century literacies and having students use and practice them.
You know that young adolescents have short attention spans (Developing Adolescents, 2003), are easily bored, and seek instant diversion. “. . . remember that we now have several generations limited to a thirty second attention span as maximum. If you don’t have their interest in the first five seconds, they are gone!” (State of Victoria, 2006). Many students are accustomed to controlling what they experience through television, DVDs, the Internet, ipods, smart phones, etc. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that few teens are willing to give anyone or anything their sustained attention for more than 12 or 13 minutes. We, teachers, therefore, must develop lessons that address different learning styles and accommodate the attention span of contemporary teenage students as well as maximize their skill with a range of technology.
Consider, too, the work of Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University who has published research in which he proposes the “multiple intelligences” theory (Gardner, 1985, 1999). Try developing lessons that take into account the numerous ways that young people can be taught and assessed based on their specific age, maturation, and individual learning style (Gardner, 2000). That variety will interest them . . . and you. I thoroughly enjoy learning from my students and find that each time I offer them options to demonstrate their understanding of literature; I gain a greater insight into the topics, themes, or literary works we’re studying as well as a deeper understanding of the students and their ways of looking at literature and life.
It is from the work of Louise Rosenblatt and Fran Claggett that you can draw inspiration to incorporate assignments that accommodate many of the multiple intelligences described in Howard Gardner’s work. The recent publications about incorporating twenty-first century literacies (Roseboro, 2010) also provide a wealth of knowledge for adapting lessons you developed as pre-service teachers and in your other school settings.
First, Louise Rosenblatt (1938,1996) encourages us to rely on students’ prior knowledge to help them make sense of the literature. This approach can free you of the burden of “knowing what the book means” and will give you permission to let the literary works (fiction, non-fiction, graphic, video) speak to the students and to trust their responses about what it says to them. You may design lessons that encourage students to use art, other graphics (Claggett, 1992), as well as technology to represent what they’ve learned but you’ll want to encourage them to ground their responses in the text to keep them from straying too far afield during oral or written discussion. Although digressions may sometimes yield relevant lessons, as a new teacher, it is important to keep your eyes on the curriculum goals so that you (or an observer) are confident that you are in control, even while permitting student choice.
How Can I Become an Effective Teacher?
The truth is, you may not do it your first year. And maybe not even the second. But here are a few tips that will give you an excellent start:
- Learn ways to use prep and class time effectively.
- As you observe experienced teachers, ask questions so you can begin to understand why they do what they do and what makes their strategies work so well. Asking questions and listening carefully to good teachers will be key to your early and continued success and satisfaction as a professional educator.
- Join a professional organization, like NCTE or one of its local affiliates and attend as many of their conferences and workshops as you can. Funds to attend conferences and workshops are available from a variety of sources. But, be prepared to pay the majority of the expenses yourself. You’ll find that the financial outlays are worth the investment primarily because the people you meet and the friends you make will be crucial to your growth and development as a successful and satisfied educator.
- NCTE also has several online options through their Connected Community and Pathways Professional Development Program that connect teachers who are interested in collaborating electronically.
- Stay connected with the professors you’ve had in college. Many are willing to maintain electronic communication with you or to direct you to retired teachers who would be thrilled to share their storehouse of knowledge and experience.
- Most of all, give yourself time and use that time wisely.
Every year of your career, students will look to you to provide engaging and enjoyable experiences while they develop the skills and gain the knowledge needed to be successful. Read the works and view the videos from the authors mentioned; mull over the ideas offered here—both will give you a running start as you assemble your own cache of strategies, activities, and develop professional wisdom for a lifetime of teaching well.
Caught in the middle: Educational reform for young adolescents in California public schools. (1987). Report of the Superintendents Middle Grade Task Force. Sacramento: California State Department of Education.
Claggett, F., with Brown, J. (1992). Drawing your own conclusions: Graphic strategies for reading, writing, and thinking. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
“Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” (2010). Retrieved July 17, 2011. http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf
Cunningham, P. M., & Allington, R. L. (2006). Classrooms that work: They call all read and write. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.
Developing adolescents: A reference for professionals. (2003). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic.
Gardner, H. (2000). How children learn. In J. D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, & R. R. Cocking (Eds.), How people learn:Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition (p.109). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescentsin the 21st century. New York: Teachers College Press.
National Council of Teachers of English. (2006). Professional development. Retrieved July 17, 2011, from http://www.ncte.org/pathways.
A parents’ guide to English language arts grade level content expectations: What your child needs to know by the end of eighth grade. (2006). Lansing: Michigan Department of Education.
Reutzel, D. R., & Cooter, R. B. Jr. (2003). Strategies for reading assessment and instruction: Helping every child succeed (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH.: Prentice Hall.
Roseboro, Anna J. Small (2010) Teaching Middle School Language Arts: Incorporating Twenty-first Century Literacies. Lanham, Md.:Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Rosenblatt, L. (1996). Literature as exploration (5th ed.). New York: Modern Language Association. [Original work published in 1938.]
Shafer, G. (2001). Standard English and the migrant community. English Journal, 90(4), 37–43.
Standards for the English language arts(a project of the National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association). (1996). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
State of Victoria Department of Education & Training. (2006). Internet planning. Retrieved June 8, 2006, from http:/ to use technology skillfully and responsibly. htm.
Tchudi, S. J., & Tchudi, S. N. (1999). The English language arts handbook: Classroom strategies for teachers (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wheeler, R. S., & Swords, R. (2006). Codeswitching:Teaching standard English in the urban classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design (2nd ed.).Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
* Adapted from article printed in English Leadership Quarterly, October, 2006. “Copyright 2006 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Posted with permission.”