Maturing My Vision of an Idealistic Teacher

When I first decided to pursue the career of being a high school English teacher, I wasn’t doing it for my love of teaching or my love of reading and writing. I chose the career for practical reasons. I wanted to become a mentor for teenagers, to help them when and where they needed it. But in talking to one of my own mentors, I knew I’d need some kind of job to pay the bills. Since then, I’ve spent over 4 years learning about education in college, and I’ve supplemented that education with podcasts, certifications, memberships, blog posts, and reading. I cultivated a love for the art of teaching, the science of education, and the humanity of students.

I remember hearing along the way that new teachers are naive when they first enter the classroom. Their idealism is displaced by the realities of the classroom. They were never ready for teaching because they never knew what teaching entails. They were seduced by the heart-warming movies about teachers like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers. After unsuccessfully replicating the famous scenes in these movies during their first year of teaching, they either move on or stay, embittered.

I’ve also recently heard the exact opposite. In a book released in December of 2017, an English teacher offers advice about how to “become the kind of teacher they make movies about.” I listened to the Hack Learning podcast episode that featured the author, and the theory behind the movie teacher argument seems to be that striving to be the best teacher you can be will probably result in becoming a better teacher.

Personally, I tend to agree with the latter argument. I honestly believe that schools need a constant influx of idealistic teachers that care about their students and know fresh ways of reaching students. But these teachers must also be equipped with the knowledge that the reality of the teaching profession is worlds away from those depicted in the movies. I’ve pursued the knowledge of this reality, but it hasn’t been until my current student teaching placement that I’ve been able to put real faces to the struggles that exist in high schools. This experience has caused me to rethink, to mature my vision of myself as an idealistic teacher.

If I’m being honest, I am writing this post to try to save myself from discarding teacher idealism altogether.

The reality of a typical day at my school is a whirlwind of events that produce an incredible mental strain on both the teachers and the students. There are only a handful of students that have an overt intrinsic desire to learn, and these students are derailed by the race towards extrinsic rewards. Other students are expected to perform in basically the same conditions as these academic students, resulting in anything from defiance, complacency, compliance or a healthy mixture of the three. It’s nice to think schools are places where students can thrive, but it’s probably more common for students to just try to survive. Teachers are expected to handle daily attendance, signing passes, unwanted behaviors, student mental health, parental concerns, phone calls, curriculum demands, colleague questions, make-up work, grading, lesson planning, lesson preparation, extra-curricular involvement obligations, and personal events all while teaching a full schedule of bell-to-bell 40-some minute lessons.

Not one college professor, textbook, required observation experience, or award-winning film told me about this.

It would probably be a huge warning sign if I wasn’t having qualms about my idealized version of being a teacher. That would mean I wasn’t paying attention. So this trembling in my typing fingers is (in reality) a good thing.

To put it more comically, the student teacher I carpool with and I have been compiling a list of job qualifications for teachers: a ginormous bladder, next-level organizational skills, the ability to do more than two things at once, a high-functioning immune system, etc. We joke that listing these as our qualifications in a job interview would show that we have a more realistic idea of what it is to be a teacher and would thus immediately land us the position.

I know that the system of education is broken, or rather, stifling the people within it. If that teacher wanted to make those small victories with a few students like in the movies, the teacher must pay less attention to the other students in the class. There isn’t enough time in a class period to “win” with every student. Teachers that attempt to do fully personalized learning with a class of 30 students might be able to afford just over a minute to each student during a class period, that is, if the teacher wasn’t handling a dozen other obligations at the same time. No wonder students are disengaged and school cultures can deteriorate so quickly.

One high school English teacher – the lone wolf ideal-fulfilling teacher – cannot change the system alone. Battling the system alone isn’t sustainable. I had a professor who told us that teachers are superheroes, echoing the litany of articles and social media pictures that became popular in the past few years. It’s a nice thought, and maybe even an inspiring one. But, as the many recent superhero movies and TV shows depict, there are far more beat-downs and missteps than victories. Victories can easily be corrupted or reversed. And a single person is not capable of affecting too much change alone.

Here is where I get another glimpse of the ideal. Maybe being the best teacher isn’t defined by being the one who is always positive, tackles every issue within their classroom, and meets every students’ needs. I realize now that it would take a concerted effort of every member of the school and local community to move towards a more humane system of education. I don’t know exactly what that looks like or what steps need to be taken to get there, but it is something. Realizing that I am not alone, that it is detrimental to be alone is powerful.

I realize that in the future – and probably within the next month – I will again be forced to revise my thoughts. I smile as I think that maybe holding onto idealism is what makes it possible to continue revising instead of giving up or giving in.

For now, these words are the truest expression of my current thought process, and they detail my journey to become (ideally) a better teacher.

2018 Projects!

It’s January and time to write up some of the things I’ve got planned for this year. To be honest, a lot of this year is shrouded in uncertainty. The only two things I am certain of are completing of my undergraduate teaching degree and participating in the Minecraft Global Mentor program this year.

To complete my major in Secondary English Education, my only requirement left is student teaching. I’ve got a great cooperating teacher in a local school who I worked with all last semester. My students and I know each other from that practicum experience, and I’ve taught several lessons with them. What I’m really excited for is trying to figure out a teacher-student teacher co-teaching model. My University Supervisor has taken notice of the research surrounding co-teaching at the teacher training level and is encouraging us to co-teach instead of taking over the classroom completely. The research shows that this is a better model for student teaching because there is more cooperation and dialogue between the veteran teacher and the student teacher. This should prove to be a rich learning experience for me!

Last night I attended the first meeting for the 2018 Minecraft Global Mentors. The program has swelled to 340 mentors from over 70 countries, which is really exciting. During this program, I’ll have access to these phenomenal educators and the Minecraft: Education Edition team as well as get to add more content via blog posts, lessons, and interviews to the community. I’v worked and spent time with several of these people during my ongoing English Educraft journey that began last year, so I know this will be another period of growth and investment in game-based learning.

Other than that, I’m not sure what this year holds. I might begin a graduate degree, substitute teach, or perhaps apply for a teaching position. I might be moving to a different city or town, and I could end up finding a temporary full time job to tide me over to a teaching position. The goal is to land a teaching position in a city, but there are several financial obstacles that will prevent me from that, so it is likely that I will be working for a while until those items are sorted out.

For now, I’m going to focus on my student teaching and the students I’ll get the privilege of interacting with over the next four months. Maybe when that’s finished I’ll have the opportunity to sit down and update this post with some more concrete plans for the latter portion of the year!

How could you…?

My typical weekend morning routine involves loading up Minecraft on my computer, brewing a cup of coffee, and putting together a podcast playlist. These mornings are cherished times of relaxation and learning where I get to explore an infinite pixelated world and infinite thoughts at the same time.

Most of the time I come across an idea in a podcast that ruminates in my brain for hours or even days. This week’s lasting idea came from Erik Francis, a guest on the K-12 Greatest Hits: The Best Ideas In Education show. In this episode, Francis introduced me to a powerful 3-part analogy for questioning and student learning objectives in the classroom:

  1. Drill Sergeant: Students will analyze an informational text using context clues by completing multiple-choice questions.
  2. Socrates: How can you use context clues to analyze an informational text?
  3. Steve Jobs: How could you analyze an informational text using context clues?

These three types of questions have varying levels of support, ingenuity, and autonomy in student learning. Francis’s argument is that the Steve Jobs-type of question allows students to take charge of their learning in a way that a “task-oriented” lesson plan doesn’t allow. The teacher is no longer the center of the learning but the mentor that wants to know all of the possibilities for tackling big questions. The methods students use to answer the questions become essential parts of the assessment instead of solely seeking a pre-defined standard.

This simple strategy of converting objectives into inquiry-based questions resonates with me and my pedagogical style. In fact, the question of “How could I use Minecraft to teach English and literacy standards?” is how my journey with English Educraft began. Just as this quest was fueled by a high-level question, lessons can be transformed through simply adding the key phrase “how could you” to the beginning of an objective.

This phrase allows for more than one method to be used to reach the same goal, which is reflected in both the Minecraft community and the Minecraft Educator community. An appreciation for infinite variety is a skill – or perhaps mentality – learned by the people that interact with this game. And this skill is marketable in the jobs of today and the careers of the future. For example, knowing how to run an effective marketing campaign is great, but knowing how to develop methods for running effective marketing campaigns is even better. Employers seek out people who can innovate, and I bet those employees that can innovate find their jobs more satisfying.

I am excited about the possibilities of Minecraft as a context for building these kinds of skills. As I look back at my list of literacy concepts I could teach using Minecraft, I can formulate all kinds of questions:

  • How could you demonstrate sentence combining skills using Minecraft?
  • How could you deconstruct and reconstruct sentences using Minecraft?
  • How could you practice writing with constraints using Minecraft?

If the possibilities for answering the questions are infinite, I want to make the act of answering those questions the goal of the day. While I can (and probably will) draft activities that guide students to the standards, how much better it would be to allow students to forge their own paths!

This type of inquiry-based learning is not common in most classrooms. There is so much room for (valuable) failure, and there is a distinct lack of complete (teacher-centered) control. It would be impossible to implement this pedagogy in a rows-and-columns, lecture-based, worksheet-filled classroom. However, I agree with Francis that these sacrifices are necessary for providing students with a meaningful and holistic education.

Harry Potter and the Educational System

This past weekend, I got together with a couple friends to watch the Harry Potter movies. The last time I watched most of them was in the summer of 2011, years before I decided to study the art of teaching. Watching these movies again with the new lens of a teacher gave me yet another perspective on the Hogwarts School of Witchraft and Wizardry.

I didn’t bring it up first, though. One of my friends commented on the awful method of teaching used by the professors of Hogwarts. They claimed that the teachers briefly tell the students what to do, demonstrate it once, then have the students practice it over and over again until they got it right (or not). While the students practice, the teachers typically tell the students what they are doing wrong instead of how to do the spell or wand flick correctly.

Later on, the same friend realized that Professor Snape consistently demands that his students perform nearly impossible tasks in Potions and reprimands the students for not following the instructions in the textbook. However, Harry later gets the professor’s old textbook in which Snape, as a student, figured out how to correctly complete each potion by modifying the recipes. My friend claimed that Snape was forcing the students to complete an impossible task by knowingly giving his students faulty instructions.

In the end, Harry is the only person at the school to prove himself as a teacher. In the underground Defense Against the Dark Arts class formed under the reign of Professor Umbridge, Harry helps Neville perfect charms and spells that he couldn’t do under the instruction of the Hogwarts staff during this time.

Yet many students of Hogwarts go on to lead successful adult lives. So, is the Hogwarts method of teaching effective?

Perhaps. As an educator, I know that trial and error is how humans learn most things. Mistakes are an inevitability in learning, and having the courage and strength to get up and try again is necessary to reach learning goals. I think the Hogwarts method has an element of the idea that students can create or make knowledge. This approach is more student centered.

That being said, some of the professors did not put the impetus on students to craft their own practical understanding of content. I seem to recall one class (History of Magic, perhaps) in which the professor droned on and on in an extended lecture that inspired sleep rather than learning. Hermione excelled in this class and many others because of her habit of reading. She came into school well ahead of the other students because she had already read the textbooks. Hermione is a teacher’s dream student: polite, engaged, and prepared. She is the kind of student that does perfectly well in lecture-based classed and the kind of student that teachers measure every other against.

So where does that leave us? I think it is safe to say that each professor at Hogwarts has a unique teaching style that they stick to consistently. They are in a position of authority and are thus feared and respected by the students. Harry, on the other hand, worked individually with students in the underground class, tailoring the experience to each student.

I also notice the difference in the environment from the Charms class and Harry’s student-run class. Most of the Hogwarts classrooms has rows of desks and chairs whereas the Room of Requirement offered a large, open space. Perhaps a reason students did well in the Magical Creatures class with Hagrid was the frequent rejection of the classroom space for the outdoor, hands-on experience.

Harry was also a peer-leader with no imposed authority on his “students.” In fact, the students constructed Harry’s authority by choosing him as their teacher. This rejection of the traditional hierarchy through the peer-teacher approach gave students choice in their learning, pretty much guaranteeing buy-in.

At this point, I am starting to wonder at the benefits of this exercise – that of dissecting the educational outcomes of a fictional story. However, I think that this case study is fair in that the mass following of the Harry Potter book and movie series in part reflects a perception of education that students hold. Students know what it is like to be lectured to, to feel lost in a class, to have that one friend who is too smart for their own good. Perhaps, even, they long to learn about something vital and important to them like the students who joined Harry’s underground class.

In any case, I enjoyed the fact that J.K. Rowling’s world inspired such an interesting conversation and train of thought about best practices in education. Even if the prompt for the discussion was fictional, the pedagogical theories applied to the situation were sound and yet again showed me that there is no single best solution for teaching students.

Summer of PD: Application for Minecraft Edu Curriculum Hackjam

I have found in the past that I often regret hitting the submit button on various job and scholarship applications without first doing one important step: archiving my responses. Later on, I realize that I want to share some of my responses, but they are gone forever. When filling out an application today, I stopped myself before hitting the enticing red submit button. I thought to myself, I must save these responses! And what better place than a blog post?

Therefore, this post is going to be an archive of my responses for my application to join the Minecraft Edu Curriculum Hackjam at the 2017 G4C Festival.

The Minecraft Curriculum Hackjam will convene 50 educators, designers, and Minecraft mentors to make subject-area curriculum relevant, immersive, and impactful for all students. Based on each group’s strength and interest, participants will turn their expertise into Minecraft: Education Edition lesson plan(s ) to be used by educators around the world. Ready to do some quick-thinking and fast-planning and even faster curriculum-writing?

1. Why are you interested in taking part in the Minecraft Edu Curriculum Hackjam ?

As a pre-service teacher, I am interested in getting together with other teachers to collaboratively brainstorm and craft lesson plans. I am aware that I would likely be one of the youngest participants in this event, and I believe that my insights as an aspiring teacher, Minecraft enthusiast, and college student will inspire innovative pedagogical choices based in the newest educational research.

2. Describe your experience with Minecraft, both as a player and an educator.

I was introduced to Minecraft five years ago as a college freshman. I was intrigued by the game’s emphasis on creativity and openness. I have learned throughout the years that Minecraft is so much more. I used redstone mechanics to assist my understanding of logic gates for a computer science class, turned to Minecraft as a way to reduce stress, and kept in touch with friends through communal servers. As an aspiring educator, I played Minecraft to give myself something to do while listening to podcasts. While listening to a podcast a few months ago, I discovered that Minecraft is being used by educators, and I began to brainstorm content that I could teach using the platform. This spark turned into a flame, and I succeeded in recruiting a professor to join me in an Independent Study scheduled for this Fall exploring the use of Minecraft in the high school English classroom. Since then, I became active in the Minecraft Educator community, becoming certified and participating in Twitter chats. I have already published two lessons and hope to have many more before I get hired. I am currently working on a map that will allow students to practice English content and plan on creating content on YouTube that provides students with more practice.

3. Can you commit to being at the July 30 event and actively participating for the duration of the day’s workshop? (Yes/No)

No

4. In what area(s) do you believe you could make exemplary contributions as part of the Minecraft Mentor community?

As I am not currently teaching using Minecraft and have not taught using Minecraft in the past, I do not think I am currently a good candidate for being a Minecraft Mentor. That being said, I am very active on Twitter and am developing lots of content for the Minecraft Educator community. If I were to be a part of the Minecraft Educator community, I would continue compiling research, generating ideas for educators, and spreading the word about Minecraft’s potential in the classroom setting. I am particularly interested in how to combine physical movement, Office 365 tools, and Minecraft to create dynamic learning experiences.

5. Please provide links to any contributions you’ve made to the Minecraft Edu community. These may include content, lessons, or presentations.

Note: All of these links are compiled at http://www.learninglit.com/educraft/
1. Lesson plans: https://education.minecraft.net/lessons/writing-unit-ender-dragon/ and https://education.minecraft.net/lessons/poetry-unit-end-poem/
2. Independent Study Syllabus: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BecSJx1syxlZNBTLpj4nETTXl-yyqJBc93MLTqJsL14/edit?usp=sharing
3. Infographic: http://www.learninglit.com/educraft/abouteducraft/
4. Research (Annotated): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLYJkgWMrS16qGwDxMv6GgLVgi1R1wRl6R and https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TYTLQPJpAm81ja7mgb8hwYdJ6unC98qn_32o1Kr1CzE/edit?usp=sharing
5. Podcast Interview (Minecraft isn’t explicitly mentioned, but I share my views on the integration of technology and education): http://www.blogtalkradio.com/edutalk2/2017/05/30/a-visit-from-a-pre-service-teacher

6. Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

While I am incredibly excited about this event, I have logistical limitations as a self-supported college student. I currently do not have the financial resources to attend this event, but I am willing to carpool with someone or Skype in to participate.