Teaching Opinion

Unpacking After ‘Road Trips’

By David B. Cohen — September 14, 2015 3 min read
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I’m about to start a new blog here on EdWeek Teacher, so this will be the final post in “Road Trips in Education.” During the last school year, I was on leave from teaching, and those road trips took me to public schools all over California in an effort to capture the spark that energizes great teaching and learning. Now, I’m back teaching high school English, and finishing up a book about what I saw during this past school year. The new blog will carry the title “Capturing the Spark” - the idea being to continue writing about the conditions that help students and teachers thrive in classrooms and schools.

Viewing last year’s project in numerical terms:

  • I visited schools in 50 cities and towns,
  • spent 66 days visiting at least one school, hitting 70 campuses, (including 3 private),
  • observed 53 teachers for a full day (or very nearly so),
  • and observed 43 additional teachers for at least one period,
  • drove 6,643 miles in a combination of day trips and 1-2 week road trips,
  • staying with friends or relatives 9 times,
  • and checking in to 13 hotels,
  • from September 27, 2014 to May 22, 2015.

Since finishing the travel and observations, I’ve been asked many times about the highlights. It’s a difficult question to answer, as the visits encompassed such a range of schools and teachers. Many were already friends of mine, people I’ve known through various professional avenues, and whom I admired before I even went to their schools. I also observed some of our state’s teacher celebrities - authors, bloggers, Teachers of the Year (and fellow EdWeek Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo, left). Some visits had deeper personal connections: I went back to two of my former schools and saw my former teachers, spent a day each with a former student and a former student-teacher who both live far away from me. One teacher I visited is also a cousin, and another is a friend who was also an old flame from high school. The book will focus on these educators’ accomplishments in their classrooms and schools, and their contributions to their communities and to our profession - but the thrill for me was more personal.

Other times, the highlights arose from my acute awareness of what I was learning as I was learning it. That learning occurred most intensely when I was furthest from my own teaching experience. It might have been watching the sense of wonder exhibited by children in a transitional kindergarten class, or watching how students trusted by their teachers worked with such intensity and skill in arts and career technology classes (including the metal shop at Lindhurst High School, right).

And though it wasn’t the point of the trip, seeing the natural beauty of our state would have to be among the highlights as well, especially when I went to regions I’d never seen before. I was fortunate to take in the magnificence of giant redwoods near the Humboldt County coast, and to drive in rocky canyons carved by the meandering Trinity River. I drove along Highway 8 and its colorful vistas near the border with Mexico, and walked into the dramatic desert scenery of Joshua Tree National Park (below).

Now, I’m weeks away from finishing the manuscript of a book, and I’m still unpacking these experiences. If you and I have a chance to talk about the experience some time, please understand if I find it hard to give a short answer about the highlights of that year. But if you want a preview of the most important lesson I learned, I can sum it up this way: capturing the spark that energizes great teaching and learning wasn’t so challenging after all, if you have the time and inclination to look for it. The real challenge is convincing people that the spark can be found inside every teacher, every student, and every school.

Photographs: Road signs (2); Larry Ferlazzo; metal shop; Joshua Tree; Genein Letford; by David B. Cohen

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