I’ve had the opportunity recently to reflect on my philosophy of teaching; an exercise that I believe is critical to being a great teacher. It took me a while to develop and define my ideas–what I believe is important for me to teach and for students to learn, and how to do that.
Looking back, I can see that it started in a study that I conducted on secondary reading strategies when I was an undergraduate. I received a grant to collect and analyze data on reading strategies and practices in a secondary English Language Arts classroom. In publishing the subsequent paper I came to realize how many literacies other than the traditional print literacy were in play–students approached reading differently in different reading contexts.
This recognition of other literacies in students’ lives played a big part in the next two years of my teaching career with my first job. Being a young teacher I felt I had more in common with my students than I did with a lot of my colleagues. I had grown up with technology, texting, mobile devices, and social networking–which set me apart. The traditional ways of literacy in the classroom, restrained primarily to print texts, were a far cry from meeting students’ needs in an age of media, digital, information, and other technology-based literacies. These two factors, my experience with technology and my recognition of an outdated approach to literacy education in an English classroom–led me naturally to the path I was to take.
What follows is an essay I wrote a while ago reflecting on that path to developing and realizing my philosophy of teaching.
My first teaching position was in a district that I very much admired–one that values innovation, achievement and best practices. I accepted an early offer to teach classes of both remedial reading students in addition to mainstream and high-achievers. While dealing with diversity among students was a well-covered topic in my undergraduate program and a daily reality of student teaching, I was unprepared for the two extreme types of students and subjects I now had to teach. On one hand I had students who were smart, intrinsically motivated and high achieving. On the other hand I had the remedial students–kids who were equally as smart but faced circumstances in their personal lives that led them to a casual disregard or even deep dislike of school and all things school related. They were the rebellious, uncaring, uninvested, and sometimes aggressive students. It didn’t take many days into the school year for me to realize I had to find a specific way or strategy to cope with both ends of the spectrum, as both types of students were indifferent and unmotivated by the traditional curriculum and methods. Developing a style of teaching that was engaging and effective was an immediate necessity.
I needed to teach literacy–the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing–to both the remedial and high-achieving students. I realized that the usual approach to literacy using worn-out strategies, outdated texts, and traditional approaches to grammar, reading, and writing–methods I saw more often than not among established teachers and curriculum–were insufficient for both my audience and my goals. One glance around a classroom of students who were technology savvy and communication hungry showed me that the basic understanding of literacy as was being currently taught didn’t meet the needs of my widely diverse students, or of any students really, in the rapidly changing school, work, and cultural environments.
I then came across the concept of evolving literacies. The idea questions what it means to teach English: what does it mean to read and compose in a world where traditional print literacy is no longer the only way? In a profession that was still largely traditionally minded, I felt a need to answer to the new and changing literacy demands on students. I dove into what I came to think of as a “multi-literacy” approach, stemming from the outcomes of a reading strategies research grant I had published as an undergraduate. As I examined different types of literacies–cultural, multicultural, media, information, visual, and more–I glimpsed a new perception of teaching English that went beyond the traditional idea. These multiple literacies inform and supplement each other, giving me a framework to create lessons that met the needs of my diverse students. The early adoption of the new Common Core State Standards by my district–and the more demanding literacy skills of the CCSS–met smoothly with my “multi-literacy” approach, and formed the basis of much of my work and accomplishments in the short time that followed.**
After more refinement and study of this approach, I found that it was not unprecedented: in fact it closely resembles the critical literacy movement begun by education and social theorist, Paulo Friere. My original line of inquiry was drastically different from Friere’s–I had neither the political or social justice agenda or experiences that he did; I was merely unsatisfied with the end result of my teaching to be filling students with knowledge of reading, writing, and grammar skills in order to possibly write decent papers in the indefinite future, as much traditional literacy aims to do. Instead, I wanted my students to be able to read, analyze, question, and interpret the narratives and information coming at them from all sides (digital or print), and to be able to communicate effectively based on what they could make of it.
I finally started to feel like the question of how to teach English had an answer, even if it wasn’t going to be definitive but evolving. This approach led me to develop a new curriculum from the remedial reading classes which better engaged students in analyzing and interpreting texts for their levels and interests. While not perfect, the results showing progress from multiple data points in both short and long term time frames was significant.
Getting positive data was the result of a lot of research on literacy and a lot of time spent in curriculum development, and I was happy with the outcomes, but especially also with the level of engagement the students showed when I made a conscious effort to appeal to multiple types of literacy. Through it all my guiding idea was this: that English Language Arts education should reflect all the different types of literacies that the world demands of people today. And there are many demands on literacy, and an increasingly literate and creative workforce to keep up with the changing economy and world. Students are up for it, having grown up in a time filled with technology and digital resources, but need to be taught how to engage, question, analyze, and communicate.
**NOTES: In particular I chose to emphasize cultural, multicultural, media, informational, and visual literacies in my approach. A cultural and multicultural literacy would allow me to connect with my students through popular culture they were fluent in, but also expand their perspectives through texts and materials that were new to them but accepted as more mainstream or cultural heritage. Media literacy allowed me to teach with a lot of the new technologies and through the digital environment so critical in today’s mass media. Informational literacy seemed more critical in the light of CCSS and how much more it leans in the direction of informational texts, but I also felt this was important in a world when the ability to interpret and analyze information is such a large part of not just basic job skills, but personal media consumption. Visual literacy likewise seemed important in part because of the interest and engagement factor, the highly visual and sometimes deceptive nature of digital media, but also because it was helped to bridge to print texts–important for a lot of learners, not just in my remedial classes.