Teaching Opinion

The Limitations of Imitation

By David B. Cohen — August 30, 2015 4 min read
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My year away from teaching high school English brought me to almost fifty California cities and towns, over sixty different schools, observing over seventy teachers. I was looking for all the different ways that teachers and schools do excellent work for students in our public schools, at all grade levels and in nearly every subject. The book about that experience will be coming out later this fall, but having just resumed my English teaching duties, I’m pausing to recall the other high school English teachers I saw on my journey. Each of them has given me something to think about as I not only try to return to form, but also grow in my profession.

One of my goals for this year will be to make my classroom as loud and interactive as Linda Yaron‘s class at University High School in Los Angeles. Her students express strong opinions about the texts they study, takes risks in conversation and in dramatic reading. I also want to have my students listen as closely as the Vista High School students in Denise Shaw‘s classes, where careful attention to other people’s interpretations can sustain a lengthy and thoughtful open discussion about a modern drama.

I’ll think about my visit to Independence High School in San Jose, where Martin Brandt modeled how I could loosen up, use more humor and just be myself a bit more to connect with students, while Harriet Garcia showed how I could communicate the depth of my caring by constantly pushing students to strengthen their evidence and arguments around a controversial issue.

I want my units and lessons to be as well-planned and cohesive as those of Jennifer Roberts at Point Loma High School; it seems no moment in a lesson, no step in a process, no student groupings are left to chance. And then I want to be attuned to my students enough to veer off and take a chance trying a new lesson that seems relevant and timely, the way Jim Burke did on the day I visited Burlingame High School.

When it’s time for my sophomores to study Shakespeare, perhaps I’ll remember Stephanie Smith‘s students have at La Quinta High School, and put my students in larger groups performing larger portions of a play, in hopes that each class will gain that much more understanding of dramatic art. Or maybe, recalling the sharp execution I saw in April Oliver‘s classes at Los Altos High School, I’ll have students perform Shakespeare in much smaller chunks, in smaller groups, to emphasize carefully practiced oral interpretations that convey specific meanings behind the words.

My visit to Hillcrest High School included three English teachers: Shari Micheli, Jeff Frieden, and Greg Mummert taught three different grade levels, but all showed that they could engage students in thoughtful academic discourse around deep philosophical texts and issues, using a variety of structured conversations and assignments. I want my students to benefit from that same kind of close reading and guided discussion, and I also want them to cut loose with the kind of creative abandon that I saw at New Technology High School, where juniors studying with teachers Andre Baldauf and Nancy Hale used a variety of creative and technical skills to pull together interdisipclinary multi-media projects, relating themes and key historical context from The Great Gatsby.

Whether they’re using a technological tool to boost engagement and receive instant feedback, or enjoying something as basic as good storytelling, Catlin Tucker‘s students at Windsor High school know that their classroom experience is all about them. I want to make my classes as student-centered as Catlin’s, and then I want to make it clear that the purpose of all this learning is for me to “decentralize” students, to push their thinking and learning out into a vast world that deserves their attention and their best contributions, the way Tara Nuth Kajtaniak does for her students at Fortuna High School.

I hope my students see in me some of the skills of Katie Hull at Luther Burbank High School, who equips her students with the language and critical reading skills to make sense of their own lived experiences through some of the most persistent problems in our society. And I hope my students also see that I’m all about the future, inspired by my visit to Tulare Western High School where Vicki Leoni inspires students to develop the skills they’ll need in college, and to take all the necessary steps to get into college - and succeed once they’re there.

Loud and quiet, loose and structured, planned and improvised, expanded and simplified, classical and contemporary, local and global, present and future... My road trips in education have led me back home, with examples that could inspire me to change everything, all at once.

For those who haven’t experienced teaching, it’s hard to explain how complex it is. There’s not enough time to teach everything we want or need to teach, certainly not as well as we would like to do it. There are a thousand decisions to make every day, involving dozens or hundreds of students individually and in various groupings, each interaction part of a complex web. That richness is what makes teaching incredibly rewarding when it goes well. And even when it goes well, we reflect on our work and consider possible improvements. If my reflections lead me to try imitating my talented and inspirational teaching peers around the state, however, I’m beginning to fear I’d be lost.

Are there techniques a teacher can copy in order to teach like a champion? No doubt. Is it enough? As I remember all the great teachers I’ve seen, maybe the key lesson is that I can’t imitate my way to better teaching; however, like my colleagues, I can focus on who my students are and what they need, and then find ways to infuse the best of myself into the teaching they deserve.

Photo: Linda Yaron leads a discussion at University High School (Los Angeles); by David B. Cohen.

Click here to see a slideshow of teachers and schools mentioned in this post.

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The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education 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.