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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Beautiful’ Moments in Teaching ‘Overshadow the Difficult Ones’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 22, 2018 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What was the best moment you ever had in the classroom?

In Part One, Jen Schwanke, Amy Sandvold, Anne Jenks, and Sarah Thomas shared their top moments. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Meghan Everette, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Jeffery Galle, and Kara Vandas share their memories. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a Teacher on Special Assignment in the Salt Lake City School District and a regular blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching site:

I worked at an inner-city school teaching fourth grade. Around my fourth year of teaching, a boy was enrolled in my classroom following winter break. I didn’t know exactly what transpired, but he had been removed from school his previous year to attend to mental health and was now deemed well enough to reenter public school after a full year. The large and brassy special education teacher asked a few prodding questions and gave a few vague references to violence that should now be under control. It wasn’t often to see trepidation from her, and I wondered what I might encounter with this boy. After all, he was only 10 years old.

This boy of ten was nearly a foot taller and a hundred pounds bigger than I was. He towered over me, but seemed a complete teddy bear. Oh, but how looks are deceiving. His removal from school, and medication cocktail evident in his eyes, were due to an uncontrolled violent temper. I tried to walk the line between teacher and friend, ever careful to wear kid gloves and yet not come off as a pushover. To this day, I’m not sure what it was that he trusted in me, but it came at a time when I doubted my ability to connect with students. I doubted if I was doing the right thing. When he would very calmly ask to move away from someone in line “before I kick his ass,” I didn’t fuss at the language, but allowed him to move. But was that the right thing to do? I certainly wasn’t sure. We continued this way for a few months.

One of my best moments in teaching came near the end of the school year. I was sitting at my desk as students were transitioning. This man of a boy came up to me red-faced and stood too close to my chair. Towering over me, his low mumble of a voice said, “Ms. Everette, Ms. Everette, you wanna see what I did in PE?” I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I said sure. I trusted he wasn’t going to go punch someone else or spew expletives, but it wouldn’t have been a total surprise either. What he did do is burned in my memory for all time. He grabbed my arm, pulled me into a ballroom dance position, and began to cha-cha. “I learned to cha-cha. Isn’t that cool? You’re not a good dancer.” Slightly disappointed in my moves, he dropped my arms, gave me a huge grin, and went to his seat.

At a point when I wasn’t quite sure of myself as a teacher, he not only proved that I was doing OK, but I had connected with him in some way that allowed him to cha-cha with me in the classroom. It’s by far my favorite moment in teaching.

Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an 8th grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book, Classrooms That Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels—elementary, middle, high school, and post-graduate, but she has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year olds is her favorite place to be—crazy, but true:

One of my favorite classroom moments came this past school year. English Honors is always a pleasure to teach, and every group I ever taught at this level was special. But, 13- and 14-year-old adolescent students can be self-absorbed as they are maturing and challenging the world. Sometimes, outside the classroom, I barely get a hallway hello! It’s okay; it’s the age, and I love the challenge. I understand and accept it.

This year’s honor’s group is one of the best of the best—always working, but friendly, polite, and smiling. Their hearts are huge. For Valentine’s Day, they created a group chat about ME outside of school (scary), worked with each other and their parents, and planned a surprise day for me. They enlisted another teacher to distract me while they set up the classroom with many gifts, roses, cards, letters, and treats. Of course, they videotaped my entire reaction, which was full of shock, tears, smiles, humor, and gratitude. My favorite part was reading their sweet notes. Nothing is better for an English teacher than to see student feelings expressed in well-written words!

After 18-years in education, I am lucky to have experienced many wonderful classroom moments, and I can only hope that other teachers are as fortunate as I have been. If you are, this list will have you smiling with pride, as you remember your own special classroom moments.

  • Lessons which leap beyond expectations, and exceed objectives, engaging the whole teen group.
  • Light bulb moments, where the discussions in the class bursts through the silence, and student learning becomes self-driven.
  • Receiving parent and/or student emails, which arrive long after the student has left the class, often thanking and crediting a current or former teacher for the successes the student is achieving in school or life.
  • “Favorite teacher” moments always hold a special place, when it is obvious the students truly love being in your room, providing proof that you will always be remembered.
  • Nothing is better than reaching a student academically or emotionally, who has struggled in the past.
  • Spotting the spontaneous nods of the heads, when a life lesson or a curriculum lecture is being taught, witnessing the students taking it all in.
  • The important awards and recognitions earned by students, or given to you by the staff, always bring a sense of accomplishment.
  • And, the innumerable thoughtful and heartfelt gifts/notes you receive along the way.

If you are a master teacher, you touch lives. Beautiful moments, like those I mentioned, overshadow any of the difficult ones, and they are the ones that let you know you are doing your job well. I live for those moments!

Response From Jeffery Galle

Jeffery Galle is Associate Professor of English, founding Director of the Center for Academic Excellence, and organizer of IPLA at Oxford College of Emory University. Co-author of How to Be a ‘HIP’ Campus: Maximizing Learning in Undergraduate Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and Revitalizing Classrooms: Innovations and Inquiry Pedagogies in Practice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Galle’s scholarship focuses on pedagogies involving active learning, particularly those associated with experiential learning, place, and inquiry:

One best moment in the past year occurred in the memoir class I offer to undergraduate students at Emory’s Oxford College. Sixteen writing students from very diverse backgrounds and ethnicities have gathered to enhance their writing and research skills through the lens of the memoir genre. The moment I will describe took place one October morning during the student-facilitated discussion on the section of the current book under discussion.

I select four books each semester, each of which challenges students to imagine others’ lives as they write essays exploring their own individual lives. That semester the readings included Between the World and Me (Coates), When Breath Becomes Air (Kalanithi), Red Scarf Girl (Jiang), and a collection of creative nonfiction essays (Gutkind).

Every class involves activities that make the learning very active for them—students have signed up to lead discussion on successive sections (frequently 40 pages or so each day), points are earned through meaningful participation in the discussion which I oversee and infrequently guide back to a central question when discussion gets too far astray, daily quizzes are required, and frequently minute papers and paired activities also make up the day. The readings, the class size and diversity, and the activities foster engagement at a level of response that can also spark controversy.

On this morning one of my international students, a student from China whose grandparents had described to her the injustices of the Cultural Revolution, was leading discussion of a particularly difficult section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in which Coates declares to his son for whom the book itself is a letter that “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Focusing on this passage, this student requested other students to react to this statement, particularly in regard to our discussion of the American dream.

What ensued was one of the most lively debates about the American dream for American minorities, for immigrants, and for mainstream upper middle class Americans. The profound differences of the students became very clear in a short time, and as students of other nationalities engaged the predominantly white students in the class, the primary issue that emerged involved social class more than other factors of difference (gender and race). Just as the class seemed about to agree that resources, limits of opportunity was the fundamental obstacle to the achievement of the American dream, the Asian facilitator offered up her story of the dispossession of her grandparents during the Cultural Revolution. Her own parents had to begin again from almost nothing, and, she declared, somewhat proudly, that the reason she had come to the U.S. for her education was precisely for the belief in the real possibility of achieving the American dream.

All 16 students entered the conversation then after this personal revelation, and the consensus that they had almost reached was lost to more intense debates about racial, ethnic, class differences. As the conversation grew more intense, the single African American student in this class raised her hand. She observed, “No one truly understands the challenges faced by another human being; the differences are just too great. But what we are doing is trying to use our imagination to reach some kind of agreement and, even if it’s impossible to see things the same way, our effort is the whole point.’

Response From Kara Vandas

Kara Vandas is an author and consultant, specializing in the Visible Learning Research and building student ownership of learning. She currently works with teachers and principals at school districts around the county and is passionate about supporting educators in having the greatest impact possible:

I can think of so many amazing moments in the classroom, but my best teaching moment centered around the students (middle school-aged) working together to construct electrical circuits by experimenting with different materials and circuit designs. I loved this moment in the classroom because the engagement was 100 percent, students were talking about their thinking, trying ideas, failing, trying again, and working it out collaboratively. From here, we launched an awesome science unit on electricity. It was a day when all the teaching I did with students around how to collaborate, share ideas, disagree, and still find a solution came together with great content conversation. It was a blast!

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Meghan, Jeryl-Ann, Jeffery, and Kara, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

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Best Ways To Begin The School Year

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Look for Part Three in a few days.

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