Education Opinion

Caveat Liber

By Emmet Rosenfeld — October 15, 2006 9 min read
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I’m winging it on the Latin, but what I mean to say is “Reader, beware.” Slow prose ahead.

I brought a couple drafts of Entry Four accomplishments to class and got some feedback from my table mates. Not enough “I verb,” they said, and ditch the flowery language. Jill, who included bolded quotes from the standards in her draft, said this helps because they take exactly twenty minutes to assess it (she heard this from a friend of hers who thought about reading for NBPTS as a summer job but decided against it when she heard about the stop watch).

Turns out, ten pages double-spaced isn’t near as much room as I thought to record the accomplishments of a career, especially if one values voice and metaphor in writing, as I do. Like my students when we switch from the kind of writing I train them to do in workshop to “test writing,” (I’m borrowing that clinical word from a colleague in the teaching of writing class I’m leading now), I’m in the uncomfortable position of trying to write straight. Very straight. And I’m not even sure I’m doing that very well, at least by the standards of NBPTS readers.

I’ll let you be the judge of that, however. Below are two drafts: one on the canoe project which is too breezy, and the other on my freelance writing career which, while too long now, is an attempt at more NBPTS-appropriate “resume-ese.” In fairness, the canoe project is still very much unfolding, so I probably won’t be able to write accurately about aspects of it like “How has this influenced student achievement?” until more of the year has unfolded.

A couple notes on format. In the canoe piece, I used separate sections to accentuate the impact within three required categories (connects to community, lifelong learner, and professional leadership). In the second piece, there are parenthetical ideas about what evidence to include (we are allowed 16 pages of documentation to support 10 pages of accomplishments).
Wood, Water and Stone

Last year, a colleague and I won a grant to build a canoe using stone tools. We want to give one hundred sophomores a boats-eye view of history, culture and technology as they build an authentic Native American dugout using traditional methods at a local historical site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, in conjunction with the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. Students will discover the rich nexus of cultural and environmental influences that reside in the unlikely form of an age-old wooden canoe as they help select and harvest a tree, use indigenous technology to burn and scrape the rough-hewn log, and finish it with pine tar.

The year-long project will be set in the context of a 10th grade Humanities course and involve four teachers (two each in English and History) and about 100 students. The teachers will create curriculum emphasizing themes like the history of technology and the clash of cultures; ASF will guide us in building the boat and making connections with the Smithsonian, with whom ASF has done previous boat-themed projects.

Connecting with the Community
Beyond the classroom, our goal is to become part of the regional celebration of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary by connecting with organizations like historic Mt. Vernon, The Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Students will be eager to participate in outreach events: picture the rough-hewn log on sawhorses at Mt Vernon, or students chipping away on the mall during the Folklife Festival. We will create a website to document the year-long project, so 4th graders from local schools or Native American students from Washington State can become virtual partners on this journey of discovery.

Partner, Learner, Leader
As well as working with the local and national organizations listed above, we will work closely with parents in this process. They can participate as volunteers in the building or just by supporting their child’s participation. We communicate with parents by frequent letters and also through a student-created website at -----, which features a blog to detail our work on an ongoing basis, a gallery with photographers, and student-researched articles on topics related to the curriculum.

Teachers have learned along with students as we engage this challenging process. For example, our research led us to the discovery that Virginia’s Native Americans were wiped from the public records by Walter Plecker, state registrar in the 1920s who vigorously applied the “one drop” rule to classify nearly all Indians as “colored,” thereby relegating them to an unprotected legal status.

Along with my co-grant writer, I presented at the Fairfax County English inservice at the start of the year to share our project with colleagues who might want to develop their own experiential programs.

Freelance Writer

As a freelance writer about education over the past five years, I have published several articles in the Washington Post Magazine, maintained a blog for over a year on Teacher Magazine, and written for numerous national and local publications. By writing about what goes on in my classroom, I have connected in different but meaningful ways with students, parents, teachers and the public.

First, my writing helps me connect with students on several levels. Most important, being a writer makes me a better teacher of writing and ultimately, makes my students better writers. When I talk to students about searching for a topic, drafting, or revising for audience, I refer to my own work as well as theirs. Last year, when I was teaching ninth graders about writing personal narratives, I shared a column I’d contributed to my neighborhood newspaper about an event that had deeply effected me and my family recently, the near-drowning of my father on his 73rd birthday. I recall a strong wave of emotion as I was reading them the piece in class. We connected at a human level; by taking a risk in publishing my story, I encouraged them to do the same. At the end of the year, two of my students published work written during the class in an anthology of exemplary work by Northern Virginia students. (EVIDENCE: Falling table of contents)

Another way I connected with a student through writing was in a November ‘05 article called “Trading Places.” This was the lead essay of a dozen that ran in a special issue of the WP magazine’s Education Review devoted to stories that illustrated the unique and powerful bonds forged between teachers and students beyond the classroom. The student I profiled was an adult Hispanic male who was in my twelfth grade English class at “night school.” We not only made a strong connection in the classroom, but through the process of writing the piece, as I interviewed him and revised, our relationship became even stronger. When he graduated, Renan was selected as the speaker for his class, and personally acknowledged me and our relationship as being important to him in his education. (EVIDENCE: Trading Places)

I also communicated with parents through my writing in several meaningful ways. For a number of years, I wrote monthly pieces for Sylvan Learning Center’s print and e-newsletter, “Successful Student Magazine.” These publications were distributed to clients of the tutoring service, and the articles and quizzes I wrote were generally targeted at both the anxious parent and the underachieving student. I gave user-friendly advice like how to encourage reluctant readers, study tips on note-taking, or ways to avoid common mistakes in grammar and usage. As a freelancer, I did not get to see the benefit of these pieces directly in my own classroom, but the positive feedback that I received from editors and my first-hand experience with students who used Sylvan makes me feel confident that these pieces helped both struggling students and their parents.

A more direct way I reached parents was through published narratives about experiences in my own classroom. In “The Best Answer,” published in February ‘04 in The WP magazine, I wrote about my decision to leave the public high school classroom after ten years of service, due in large part due to what I saw as the erosion in the educational climate caused by the implementation of high stakes testing. I received numerous communications from parents and teachers at the time of publication and since, most of which were sympathetic to my point of view. This summer, x years after its publication, I ran into someone at the neighborhood pool who shared that reading that piece had informed her decision about where to send her child to school. Parents were also active readers of “Hall Pass,” I column I wrote and edited in a community newspaper for four years that featured a “teacher’s eye view” of both my classroom and my colleagues.

Teachers and colleagues are an important part of my audience when I write, and also, through my writing I have allowed many of my colleagues to discover their own voices. With “Hall Pass,” I helped more than a dozen teachers like Stacey, a former colleague who has since become a department chair and a leading teacher mentor in the county, to achieve a professional milestone by publishing her first piece. She was then a hesitant writer, but we discussed topic ideas, and I guided her in revision until her article was publishable.

My blog on Teacher Magazine online is another example of how I communicate with and provide a platform for teachers. “Certifiable?” chronicles my journey toward NBPTS certification over the course of the last year. The comments by readers from around the country are evidence of the interest and impact this blog has had on other teachers. (EVIDENCE: comments)

A member of a writing group in which I participated last summer as part of the NVWP Summer Institute was thrilled that I was able to publish her “position paper” on my blog to a national audience. Also at the institute, I developed and gave a presentation called “From Query to Clip: Telling Teachers’ Tales from the Classroom.” A current colleague has had two pieces published recently as a direct result, she says, of what she learned in my presentation (EVIDENCE: email).

My writing connects me not only to students, parents, and teachers, but to the public. In “The Best Answer” I added my voice to a national discussion about how the standards movement is changing education. A piece on the same subject entitled “The Weakly Standards” was published in the American Prospect, a lesser known but influential policy magazine. More recently, I have had a dialog with Jay Mathews, Washington Post education journalist who is responsible for Newsweek’s list of America’s Top 100 High Schools. I challenged the list in a piece published in Ed Week last June; after that, Jay and I collaborated on a dialog that was published in Teacher Magazine. Through these sorts of writing, I have made myself heard in our society’s ongoing debate about public education.

The opinions expressed in Certifiable? are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.