Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what to teach next. Lesson planning is a constant internal monologue: What’s next? What’s important for my students now? Where do we go after that? In the early days of my career, I was obsessed with what I perceived my students were lacking. They couldn’t spell. They couldn’t punctuate. They can’t. They won’t. They don’t. As an educator, it is all too easy to fall into that trap.
Olsen’s students perform research that won’t just benefit them but their community, as well. (Photo courtesy of the author)
When I was obsessed with what I perceived my students weren’t able to do, I was also making rash and frustrated decisions about what was most important to teach them next. But what is important to teach our students? The case can be made that all subject areas are important, but students often lack the educational opportunities to put their learning from these subject areas to work in the real world.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of Education John King gave an inspiring speech on civic education at the National Press Club. As part of his speech, he called for a commitment to nonpartisan constitutional education in our classrooms. At the same time, he recognized that civic education isn’t easy. Even for teachers and administrators with the best of intentions, these conversations—which often cover some of the most contested issues at the center of our public life—can skew partisan. This is no small problem.
To navigate these conversations effectively, teachers must have training on how best to facilitate these discussions and must receive support from their principals, their administrators, and the wider community. However, teachers must also have access to trusted, nonpartisan information about our Constitution and its history—information that can be hard to find in our polarized age. That’s where the National Constitution Center comes in.
During a morning in mid-October, I stood on a corner in Washington, D.C., accompanied by two friends as we patiently waited for the illuminated walking man to give us safe passage across the street. The view before us was an expansive building stretching the majority of the block of Maryland Avenue — the United States Department of Education. It was our destination that day – where we would meet 250 other parents and educators from across the nation.
Kristin Kane was one of many parents who attended Parent Camp at the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month. Here she’s seen taking notes on her phone during a session. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education)
Soon, we found ourselves among smiling faces and friends – all bustling about and mission driven.
I was a fairly mediocre teacher when I first started. Sometimes I look back on my first few years and wonder why my students didn’t walk out on me. My old slides look atrocious; my handouts were too wordy; my instruction was completely teacher centered: me talking, me explaining, me doing some weird dance.
“I’m the teacher I am today largely because I stuck it out and learned from my early career failures and missteps.” (Photo courtesy of the author)
There were some long, sad, doubt-filled nights my first few years of teaching. I thought frequently about moving into law. For the first several years of my career, every spring, I would thumb through an LSAT prep book and browse law school catalogues. It wasn’t until my seventh year that I didn’t get that “ritual spring itch.” That’s when I knew I had hit my stride.
“We as students, and people of marginalized communities, belong at the table.”
The idea of belonging is something I’ve struggled with for years. From my lived experiences, growing up as an Asian American and Filipino American low-income student often made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. But recently I was able to participate in a Student Voices Session at the U.S. Department of Education with Secretary John King, Jr. – and it helped me validate myself, and begin the process of understanding that I do belong.
During the session I joined six other students for a panel discussion, where we pair shared and dialogued around our experiences with federal financial aid. We also uplifted our personal narratives as minority students across racial, ethnic, class identities and more. Many drew on ideas of familiarity and of community in accessing resources to pay for college, whether it was through on-campus clubs, local libraries, or families.
When we talk about improving educational outcomes, we talk about all kinds of critical issues: poverty, accountability, school climate, teachers and curriculum to name a few. These are all essential pieces of the puzzle and deserve our attention as educators, advocates, and parents. But another piece of the puzzle also merits further attention: student access to college advising.
As a social studies teacher, I’m always excited to teach students about their legal rights, our political system and how they can become engaged citizens. However, that excitement kicks up a notch during a presidential election year because I’m reminded of the importance of teaching students how to become engaged citizens. As a social studies teacher, it’s up to me to set the foundation for my students so they will be able to engage productively.
Exchanging ideas in civics class. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Each year around Constitution Day (September 17), the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania releases data showcasing some Americans’ limited understanding of civics and government. Two alarming statistics from their most recent study: three-quarters of respondents could not name all three branches of government, and thirty-one percent of respondents could not name one branch. This data provides a yearly reminder about how important it is for me to arm my students with this knowledge so they can become informed citizens who don’t end up as one of those statistics.
Secretary King and senior officials got on the bus and went back to school this week during #OpportunityTour, which visited exemplary PK-12 schools and institutions of higher education and celebrated local ideas and initiatives across several southern states, including Alabama. This week’s edition of Voice from the Classroom brings us perspective from the 2008 Alabama Teacher of the Year, Dr. Pamela Harman.
After teaching for more than 20 years, I can say that everything about a new school year is exciting (except maybe having to wear shoes).
When I was a new teacher, the beginning of the school year intimidated me. I was nervous about both my content knowledge and my pedagogy. So my goals for the year focused on improving my practice and strengthening my teaching skills. I worked to deepen my science content knowledge, and I developed a repertoire of instructional skills and habits of mind necessary to promote my students’ success and capacity for life-long learning. It was difficult for me to push students’ learning because I was still honing the skills I needed to teach and evaluate it.
Healthy meals can lead to success during the school year. (Photo courtesy USDA)
Reading, writing, and arithmetic aren’t the only things our nation’s children will be learning this school year!
Schools have made major strides in helping students learn the importance of healthy eating through balanced meals and nutrition education. Now that kids and teens are boarding their buses for another school year, the entire school community has the opportunity to build on that momentum by continuing to increase access to nutritious meals and encourage healthy habits.
Acrylic paint, sidewalk chalk, and calligraphy pens are staples of my English class. These items, along with reciting poetry and acting out scenes from plays allow my students to communicate through a variety of mediums, and to integrate their creative capabilities into their everyday learning.
In 2001, I walked into my 6th grade classroom ready to share my love of reading and writing. However, I soon discovered that my students were in need of much more than an enthusiastic teacher with an English degree. I needed to engage them and make them want to learn.
Stacey Dallas Johnston incorporates the arts in her English classes. (Photo courtesy of the author)
My students that year struggled with the basics of reading and writing. Many had already decided that they hated school, and could already be labeled as chronic absentees. Instead of teaching Shakespeare, I was struggling to keep students engaged. I too struggled that year. It took a few months, but ThePhantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster was the gateway into exploring the arts. We broke the story into parts and acted it out, we made 3D models and we wrote poems as the main character. It was a start.
As a Pre-K teacher, I have the unique opportunity to be one of the first educators to set the foundation for good attendance with parents and students. Since I am required to have an interview with each family and student before the school year begins, I take advantage of the interview to explain the attendance rules and expectations. I explain to parents that attendance is the basis of education for all students and that it is state law that they attend class. My campus, J.J. Pickle, hosts many recent immigrant families who often aren’t familiar with school procedures and laws pertaining to education. Reviewing policies with parents is a way to avoid confusion and unnecessary absences.
Attendance is important at every age! (Photo courtesy of the author)
It can be challenging when parents believe that early childhood education is more like a daycare setting rather than an academic one, so they don’t see the problem with their children missing a few days. But I am proud to say that my classroom is academically rigorous — for four year olds. I have had students enter my class not knowing any letters, but they often leave reading by the end of year with significant gains in learning English.
Students at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. (Photo courtesy of the author)
Students excel when they feel both welcomed and supported. At Camino Nuevo Charter Academy (CNCA), we believe that quality schooling is dependent upon quality relationships with students and families. This philosophy creates a space to better serve our community in a socially just way.
That’s why CNCA created and sustained an educational model that uses the per-pupil funding that we receive from the state to support strategic resources like full-time mental health practitioners and professional development for teachers and administrators on trauma-sensitive instruction. We also conduct home visits and teach ethnic studies as part of the curriculum to both affirm our relationships with students and to assist them in navigating life circumstances. We’ve found that these types of school climate investments help our students redirect energy to learning and it shows in their academic performance.