What questions are you thinking about right now?

I ask that to others to learn about their priorities and the problems they’re trying to address. If quality answers are flowers in a beautiful conversation, questions are the rich, loamy soil that feeds an ongoing discussion.

My undergraduate thesis director always encouraged me to frame my research in the form of questions, not statements that I wanted to make. Starting with answers can lead to bias and missed opportunities. With good guiding questions, you give yourself license to discover and grow.

In regards to education and teaching, I realized recently that I don’t consolidate my questions. I scribble them in margins, on napkins, across sticky notes, sprawled on white boards. Seldom do I re-write them in one place, or organize and associate them with particular phases of my own learning.

This post is an attempt at such organizing. Last Wednesday, I began co-teaching as an English student teacher in a public high school. In one day, I went from looking at a small sliver of space through a telescope to seeing a full night sky with my own eyes, each star a burning question both immediate and centuries old.

I wanted to record the questions on my new-teacher mind, some of which I hope to soon address, others which I imagine I’ll ponder in the night sky for decades to come.

 

Do I start with what or how?

As a new teacher, I wonder about whether to focus my energy on the content of my curriculum or on the medium of learning. There are multitudes of online resources for curriculum content, from libraries of Open Education Resources to packaged curriculum sequences. I feel tempted as a new teacher to take someone else’s vetted curriculum and spending the rest of my energy on creating quality learning environments and experiences. Yet I also feel a gap in my expertise around what makes good curriculum good. I recognize that both are important enterprises (content expertise vs. activity design), but should I prioritize one over the other as I start?

What is the purpose and effect of publishing writing for an audience, either familiar or anonymous?

Writing is hard. It’s also scary if a colleague or someone anonymous from the internet might read my work. Yet when I was a student, writing assignments with no intended audience often just felt like busywork for the sole purpose of meeting a teacher’s seemingly arbitrary prompt and rubric. How does publishing your writing, whether for peer review, a blog, an anonymous digital space like Reddit, affects your authorial intention, message, and impact? I feel it increases my perceived meaningfulness of the writing. However, in a classroom setting, is the pressure of public (or peer) scrutiny worth the benefit of making the students’ writing more meaningful or “real”?

Why should students read the same book at same time?

If students are at all different reading levels with different personal interests and cultural backgrounds, why do we so often ask the class to read the same pages at the same pace, whether in class or for assigned reading at home?

I met recently with my Stanford literacies professor Antero Garcia to discuss this tension. He brought up the importance of creating shared meaning, vocabularies, and learning experiences in class. When teaching high school English, he experimented with a few different tactics to build in differentiation without sacrificing those shared experiences. With students from south-central Los Angeles who often didn’t have time to read at home, he budgeted in silent reading into every class period so students could read texts that met their own interests and needs. He also developed units where students self-selected into groups based on four or five books with a similar theme (in his case, the texts were international examples of struggle against poverty or discrimination). This structure allowed students to have some agency in selecting texts that interested them while still encouraging group conversation and reflection.

Should students tell stories or simply explain?

Storytelling is how humans connect. When you meet up with an old friend or explain a unexcused absence to a professor, you begin with a story. I feel that much of the media and information consumed today, whether through news articles, Netflix, Youtube Videos, or online threads, is in the form of stories. We all create in stories whether we recognize it or not. By making explicit the form and functions of storytelling, and offering storytelling as a regular expository and persuasive tool, I feel we can help students demonstrate mastery in a way that feels more accessible, intuitive, and fun. Yet perhaps I’m oversimplifying the time or energy required to understand, synthesize, and re-package information as stories.

How am I politicized as a young teacher?

An example: I’m attending Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley. With the affluence, innovation, and narratives of meritocracy swirling about, it’s a complicated place. In a region where rent makes all but a few professions seem unaffordable, young, poor teachers can become the poster child for housing or anti-development campaigns. Start-ups like Landed are capitalizing on this narrative and investing in the home-buying potential of “essential professionals.”

Landed Start-up

Another example: The liability insurance I was required to purchase as a student teacher doubled as a student teacher membership to the National Educator Association, the largest union in the country. I’m not opposed to this, but I also wasn’t given any context when signing the dotted line.

A last example: My teaching program emphasizes educational equity and teaching for social justice. So far, so good; I’m stoked. Important to note that many of our readings are from texts which, ideologically, some might coin as strongly (or radically) liberal. For myself and many others, they represent essential and urgent pathways to address various levels of systematic oppression. Nevertheless, those views and the rhetoric employed in those perspectives are overwhelmingly partisan in the current American political landscape. The political landscape is overwhelmingly messed up right now under the current president, but we’re sitting squarely on the left in my program. (But, again, the Bay Area is overwhelmingly liberal as a whole; not surprising that Stanford is no exception.)

Regardless, I want to be conscious of how my experiences as a teacher-in-training inculcate views which hold political and partisan significance.

How do the disclosures I make about my personal life bring me closer or distance me from students?

My identity is such that I benefit from most typical dimensions of privilege in the United States. My students will see that I am a white man, but there are other elements of my identity that become evident only through the stories I tell. I wonder how my privileges affect students’ desire or ability to build rapport with me. For example, I had a merit scholarship that allowed me to travel abroad extensively during my undergraduate education. Would stories of my travels be endearing to high school students, or would they create resentment from those that might see such travel as unattainable opulence? I want to share about my life and connect with students, but I understand that vulnerability does not always create closeness.

 

I’m considering making an ongoing list of questions. Maybe another spreadsheet. I love spreadsheets. For now, the above represent some of my first “big” questions I’m ruminating on with the bright, new teaching constellations now above me.

Featured Photo Credit: “Stars !” by Erik bij de Vaate