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Taxing

By Emmet Rosenfeld — April 13, 2008 7 min read
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Let it not be said that the NBPTS gods don’t have a sense of humor, albeit twisted. Retakes are due on April 15. I just put the finishing touches on my Reflective Summary, the final part of my do-over. I will soon send off the blue box for the second time. Here I mark the occasion by breaking my own promise not to write about this anymore.

Why not? After all, I also colored outside the lines on my strictly drawn resolution to recycle the same accomplishments as I used last year. Then I wrote about the flaming canoe, being a Teacher-Consultant with the writing project, and this blog. The big change this year was that I scuttled the canoe. Rather than beat my head against the Boards, I decided to agree to disagree with NBPTS on the value of experiential learning, and now my accomplishments comprise being a Teacher-Consultant with the writing project, this blog, teaching a writing class for teacher-researchers, and a contact log.

Another promise I broke was to avoid peer review and extensive revision. Sitting around at monthly meetings of the district support course last year, I got the feeling that too many inexperienced cooks might spoil the brew, and ended up limiting myself to working primarily with only with my course-assigned reader. This year, I hand-picked three reviewers, hoping to triangulate more successfully. Two of my editors were National Board pros, NBCTs with broad experience in the organization and the support world; the last was a total stranger, one of many generous readers of my recent Post piece who volunteered to lend an eye.

One place where I did follow my own advice was in working backwards from solid evidence of student achievement instead of merely narrating lessons from a teacher’s-eye view. I talk a lot more this year about what happens in my class as a result of what happens outside of it—for example, how my blog here on Teacher has led me to use blogs with my own students, or how teaching a course for teachers led me to online collaborative writing tools that helped my kids with their science projects.

Also, as I said I would this time around, I used verification forms and a contact log (both of which I had eschewed last time in favor of what I thought then was more authentic evidence). I think the changes have recentered my entry on student rather than teacher achievement, hopefully enough to achieve my modest goal: 1.8 or bust.

Below, see the difference a year makes. Here is my Reflective Summary followed by a taste of last year’s (rules prevent publishing scored entries). The bottom line, as I point out in the bottom line of the current version, is that the first Entry Four was about me; the revised model is about my students.

Reflective Summary 08

The most effective aspect of my work outside the classroom in impacting student learning has been my ten-year involvement with the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP). Through my connection to this organization I learned how to make a student-centered classroom focused on writing. Also, I have developed the habits of a reflective practitioner that allow me to constantly improve my teaching through self-examination and through rich dialogue about pedagogy with colleagues. Last, the NVWP has helped me grow as a writer myself, which lets me communicate what happens in my classroom and informs the way I teach my students.

Placing students at the center of a writing classroom means learning is individualized and each student discovers that he or she can be not just a learner but a teacher. This has a profound impact on their learning in my class and beyond. When Brad comments about his own writer’s notebook that “Overall, [it] has really had a positive effect in all that I do, not just English class,” this shows that writing project techniques like freewriting and writing to learn have helped him gain confidence in his own ability to write and to think. When Xinyi and Nicole collaborate on a paper and afterwards are able to explain that, in order to create and argue persuasively for a thesis they must consistently use evidence for support, make an effective “hinge statement,” and organize a convincing argument, this shows me that they have internalized lessons about writing that will stay with them long after they forget the details of their topic.

Reflective practice is another skill which the writing project has helped me to develop that has a strong impact on student learning. I habitually record my thoughts before, during and after a lesson, and gather data on an ongoing basis to inform these observations. On my blog, colleagues from around the country respond to my thoughts on best practice and share theirs. Another aspect of reflection that I noticed in compiling Entry Four is that I do a lot of surveys and reflective assessments with my students. The comments my ninth graders wrote about their own blog use are examples of how I gather information from my students which helps in assessment and shows me how to change future lessons to be more effective. I am also teaching metacognitive awareness, in other words the ability to analyze one’s own patterns of behavior and achievement; through this studentes not only learn specific content, they learn how to learn.

Considering the patterns evident in my accomplishments, I can see several things I want to do to further impact student learning in the future. In my contact log, I noticed that almost half of my contacts with parents involved attempts to respond thoughtfully to concerns or to foster communication about specific needs and progress. I want to maintain a high level of accessibility to help kids who are struggling, but I’d like to broaden my contacts with parents to solicit even greater participation in the language arts program. One way to do this might be to create assignments that require students and parents to work together, like oral history interviews or a shared book. Another way that I can better open-- and keep open-- lines of communication, is to use techniques like blogging to establish two-way communication with parents that will provide specific information about the language arts program on an ongoing basis and outline steps for parents to support their children’s language development.

Finally, to further impact student learning in the future I will continue to seek opportunities for professional collaboration. While teaching and taking part in courses with the writing project, I learned about wikis and google docs, online tools that let me experiment with collaborative writing with my students. This retake entry also shows how I both teach and learn from colleagues. When I didn’t achieve board certification on the first try, I was discouraged. Sharing my process with a public audience fostered dialogue and brought support. I took advantage of the advice I received and also sought out a range of feedback. The difference is that last year’s Entry Four was about me; this year’s version is about my students.

Excerpts from Reflective Summary 07

...I conceived the canoe project originally because I wanted students who were more comfortable IMing one another about chem problem sets to have the visceral hands-on experience of swinging an axe. They did, and it was true that taking these academic superstars out of their comfort zone forced collaboration, problem-solving and ultimately, provided a richer understanding of themes in history and literature. What I did not anticipate was how strongly this experience would enrich my own relationships with parents, colleagues, and the community, nor the degree to which these connections would augment student learning. In some cases, an informal connection with a parent helped one student achieve greater success in the class; in other cases, I found that reaching out to experts, like the scientist from the tree lab or my own colleagues—in other words, being an active learner alongside my students—resulted in curricular opportunities that let us all see the project in a new light.....

Finally, my professional writing informs my teaching, and therefore has a direct impact on student achievement. I talk to students about their writing not as a grammarian with a red pen, but as a fellow writer who struggles to reach a given audience under specific conditions, or, at other times, to simply discover what he is feeling. Writing is thinking, I contend, and often ask students who want to carefully organize all their ideas before setting pen to paper, How can you know what you think before you write? For me, the question may well be, How can I discover who I am as a teacher before I write? The answer to this question lies in the four entries of this portfolio.

The opinions expressed in Eduholic 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.

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