Celebrate: The Start of a New Semester

celebrate link upThis week, I am celebrating the beginning of a new semester.

First weeks are always very hectic for me. I have good intentions about preparing early so that first week will be stress-free and smooth, but I like to use all the time I have during breaks to generate ideas and create, to think about possibilities, to reflect and ruminate, to make long messy lists of possibilities, to map up multiple versions of a course, to reread all my old files of Teaching Ideas, to skim teaching blogs and see what others are doing, to reread favorite professional development books and think of ways to refine my practice.

But at some point, you have to commit. Students will be trooping into classrooms, expecting a syllabus, a course schedule, and a lesson plan.

And so the last few days of winter break were spent distilling all I had read and written and reflected upon for the past month or two into four syllabi; two course schedules (I decided to forego the course schedule in Children’s Lit and Adolescent Lit; I don’t like reading according to a semester-long prescribed plan, and I’m guessing my students don’t either); and enough ideas for the first class session to tide us over for three or four weeks.

Even though the semester has started, I am still working out what I want us to learn, how I want us to learn it. My notebook is full of pages of scribbles and lists just from this week as I refine and distill and revise after those first classes, after I’ve met my students and learned a little bit about what they are expecting and wanting from the class.

As I we begin to learn together, I will make more refinements and distillations and revisions. There will be many hours spent reading about something I plan to teach–only to discover that my students don’t need me to teach that. Actually they need something very different. And so I will be off to figure out how best to meet that need. To others, it might look like wrong turns and dead ends. But that’s not how I think of it. At least not anymore.

What I do to plan and design my teaching is not particularly efficient. But it is effective for me.

For years, I had an internal war with myself about the way I work. Why can’t I be more organized? (I had visions of neat binders with each day’s lesson plans hole-punched and filed in order.) Why can’t I teach the same thing each year? (I was pretty sure all I needed was the row of neat binders lined up on my desk.) Why must I always change up the reading list? Why do I keep assigning books I’ve never taught before? Why am I always changing assignments? Why am I always refining, revising, throwing out and starting all over? Why do I spend so much time rethinking?

But this is my process. Trying to do things differently, more like how I thought other teachers worked, didn’t make me happy. It didn’t lead to better learning for my students. So eventually I made a grudging peace with the way I work.

And now I’ve come to believe this messy, crazy, totally inefficient process is actually what makes me a good teacher.

My process is not about change for the sake of change. It is largely about my students and what I think they need and how my understanding of what they need shifts as I know them better and know my fields better, as I see what issues confront them when they get out into their own classrooms and I modify my courses to try to prepare my students better for those realities.  (See, for instance, my Reflections on Teaching Children’s Literature post.) 

My process is also about the shifting nature of the subjects I teach. What’s contemporary about contemporary literature changes over time. The reading list for the first syllabus I ever wrote for Adolescent Literature, six years ago, seems dated now. I can’t even imagine how extensively I will need to revise a new course I’ll begin teaching in the fall, Digital Literacy. 

Finally, and most importantly, my process is about me and who I am as a learner, reader, writer, thinker, person.

It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the more I focus on myself and my processes as a learner in my classroom, the more my classes shift to being truly student-centered. Or perhaps it’s not ironic at all. Perhaps it makes perfect sense.

A couple of years ago, I read Will Richardson’s Kindle single, Why School? I had been groping around some of the issues he writes about for some time and doing a lot of experimentation in my classes, but nothing was quite cohering in the way I wanted it to. His book led to a teaching epiphany for me: what makes me a good teacher is that I am a good learner. And what would make me a much better teacher is to make my learning–what I know and believe about learning, what I do as a learner–much more explicit in my classroom.

I teach teachers, mostly, and I am trying to model a way of being and doing in the classroom, being and doing with students, with content, with technology, that my pre-service teachers will find energizing, productive, and ultimately replicable in their own classrooms.

And what I do as a teacher begins and ends with what I do as a learner.

My teaching changes all the time because I am constantly growing and evolving as a learner, as a reader, as a writer.

This work I do is for my students, yes, but it’s also for me.

I used to love the beginning of a new school year or new semester because I thought it was an opportunity to do it right. And certainly with practice and experience, I have gotten better at all the teaching things that stumped me when I first started out. But doing it right isn’t about learning. It isn’t about growing or evolving.

So now, I celebrate the beginning of a new semester because it’s an opportunity to do it differently. To learn, to play, to experiment, to muddle around, to take risks, to see what happens, to discover, to fail, to fail better, to find more joy and more challenge in this work I love.

And to bring 100 or so other people along with me for the journey.


9 responses to “Celebrate: The Start of a New Semester”

  1. Linda Baie Avatar

    I absolutely love this, Elisabeth, because I believe it’s how our school works too, a lot harder to re-invent a curriculum each and every year, but our process begins with the students’ needs, just as you describe, & the learning of new things that stem from those needs. I’m glad you’re celebrating your process, that it’s okay to be the learner you wish to be!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      My pre-service teachers are now doing their student teaching and all of the classrooms they describe are places that start with content and curriculum, not people. There is so often a huge disconnect between what our students need and what we’re teaching.

  2. jarhartz Avatar

    I love this: “And what I do as a teacher begins and ends with what I do as a learner.” This is so important. The messiness is the process of learning. And teaching is learning as you do so beautifully with your students. I love the way you honor what your students need to learn and move with that not necessarily your plans.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It took me so long to realize this and then even longer to be able to articulate it!

  3. carriegelson Avatar

    A wonderful post and so important. Organization is overrated! Inspiration on the other hand . . .I am constantly changing things in my classroom based on my learning and thinking but mostly based on the children in front of me and their needs. I can never map out a direction and follow it precisely. So thank you for celebrating the messy and the thinking and the process! Loved reflecting on this post 🙂

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      One of the students in my Adolescent Lit course is a student I knew (but didn’t teach) in high school. She came to my room sometimes to borrow books. I asked her to describe my high school classroom (which had 3K books!) to our Adolescent Lit class. The first thing she said was, “Well, your desk was really messy.” LOL.

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