My pre-service teachers spend about 20 hours doing observations in a local school, and I invite them (require them) to blog about their experiences.
Like many things in education, the blogging requirement in my classes was not the result of carefully-crafted foresight. My course is designated a writing-intensive course at MIT, which means that students have to write and revise at least 20 pages of text throughout the semester. Since I don’t need them to do a longer research essay, I have them do four shorter pieces of writing throughout the semester. If I were designing a teacher education program from scratch, I wouldn’t have necessarily thought, “I bet the best way to evaluate student competencies as they develop a deeper understanding of teaching and education would be through four five-page papers.” But, as I explain to students, every teacher operates under constraints set by larger institutions that can seem arbitrary, and often the best thing to do is make the best of them.
From these somewhat inauspicious beginnings, my students and I have come to greatly value the virtues of writing about teaching. One of the most important things that I have to teach my students is that teaching is complex. Teachers make a dozen small decisions every minute, each of them connected to deep bodies of research literature and practical wisdom from domains ranging from neuroscience to sociology. As one student wrote of his observations and reflective writing: “Ultimately, the experience has opened my eyes to just how far beyond curriculum design-and-execution teaching goes - it’s a job not only about conveying the material, but also about creating and maintaining an environment in which such development can happen well.”
Writing can play a powerful role in instigating those revelations. When I throw students into observations, they are crammed within a busy college schedule of classes, sports and activities. Even during the observations, students are rarely passive observers; in most classes the mentor teachers welcome an extra pair of hands to coach, tutor, and ocassionally teach a lesson (How cool is it to have your physics class taught by someone studying physics at MIT?). Writing makes students pause amidst the haste, and to think about what they’ve really learned. As one student writes in the final reflective essay of her blog portfolio:
Forcing myself to sit down and say “What is at least one thing I learned or saw from today?” made it impossible to simply observe without analyzing and actively processing the things I was seeing. I found, also, further into the observations, that as I observed I was intentionally looking for practices and principles behind the actions and events in the classroom, which was incredibly useful! A lot of what a teacher does is on-the-fly compilation of classroom data-- what’s going on in students’ heads, how are the lessons being perceived, how it’s best to next proceed--and viewing a classroom with the mindset of ‘I’m going to write a blog post about this’ is a kind of first step towards that kind of thinking.... I definitely believe this sitting down and actively trying to put into words what I saw and experienced is something that I hope to apply to much more than classroom observations in the future--it’s a great way to force yourself to process events, and I learned so much from it!
I particularly like the notion of “parallel” thinking that the student surfaces in this reflection; the notion that teaching involves a multifaceted running inner monologue about what’s happening in the classroom, and that thinking about blogging is a way to practice that multi-process thinking.
Other students focused in their reflections about how blogging about particular moments and events force them to recount and account for the complexity of classroom life:
Writing allowed me to dissect what I saw in the classroom. Often times my thoughts about what I saw were jumbled up and I thought that I understood what I had seen. When I tried to put my observations in sentences, the result often contained holes in my understanding that I had not noticed when my thoughts were in my head. Writing allowed me to notice those holes and think about what I needed to understand better. I returned to the following class with something to pay particular attention to.
Still others see blogging as a way to track their own changing ideas of education. As one student wrote, “For me, blogging about what I’ve observed is one way of remembering the perceptions I once had of education. I may disagree next year about some of my beliefs today.” Embedded in the notion of constant writing and reflection is the belief in the possibility of constant growth. I try to have my students embrace the notion that teaching is a craft that takes years to master, and mastering the craft requires challenging one’s beliefs and pre-conceptions along the way.
Ultimately, I hope that through writing, my students learn that teaching is hard: hard in the sense of infinintely rich and complex, open to a lifetime of study and mastery. Many of my students enter my class with the notion that teaching is just saying the right stuff and then helping students do that stuff. Writing about the nuance of each moment and interaction helps students understand how much more goes into creating a great classroom.
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