Making Teaching Public

This essay was written as part of the discussion at the launch of the site Making Teaching Public: A Digital Exhibition and the publication of the book Going Public With Our Teaching: An Anthology of Practice. Both projects find new ways of opening the classroom doors and sharing best practices of teachers from across the country with the public. Below is an essay that I wrote in 2005 when the work first went public, where I describe my participation in the process of documenting my work and discuss the issues involved when teachers move their work beyond their classrooms.

As one of the teachers in the first cohort of K-12 teacher scholar participants of CASTL in the summer of 1999, I can still remember my surprise and discomfort when Tom Hatch and Desiree Pointer Mace approached me and asked me if I would consider documenting my scholarship of teaching on a web-site. At the time, I had been planning to write an extended narrative essay about my experiences teaching Drama and English at an urban magnet high school in Philadelphia. I wanted to tell the story of my own growth as a teacher and the ways in which inquiry into my own teaching enabled me to create an inquiry based Drama class at my high school. Tom and Desiree sat me down and began talking about their vision of using the World Wide Web and technology for capturing images of teaching for the whole world to see. They spun out the powerful possibilities for these sites to expand the knowledge of teaching by creating a complex community of educators who could learn from each other’s work.

At that time, it was impossible for me to imagine what such a site might look like, let alone imagine the depth, range and diversity represented by the sites collected here. I still am not sure why I said yes. I had many reservations. I worried that the sites would be construed as models for others to follow without consideration of specific students or diverse contexts or that novice teachers would see the sites and be intimidated by the apparent ease with which experienced teachers could do this work. I was also afraid that the teachers documented on these web-sites would be seen as “exceptions,” and that as such reinforce the public’s conception that the only thing wrong with public schools today are the teachers, thereby releasing society at large from any responsibility for the funding and opportunity gaps that exist between the schools in our richer and poorer communities.

Maybe it was Tom’s enthusiasm and compelling argument that I would be joining a group of pioneers in the field, getting on board at the beginning of an exciting journey with limitless possibilities to make contributions to the field. Or maybe it was Desiree’s brilliant mock up for my web-site that she created right before my eyes as we discussed my philosophy of education and the way that philosophy played out in my Drama classroom. She was able to show me how the web-site could illustrate the relationships between and among theory, practice, teacher inquiry, student learning and school reform in a more complex and dynamic manner than the linear text I was then in the process of writing. Whatever the reason, I committed to documenting my scholarship of teaching as a web-site.

inquiryI entitled the site “Playing with the Possible: Teaching, Learning and Drama on the Second Stage,” the title I was planning to use for my narrative. I wanted the entire site to embody a “second stage,” a space for the development of new often non traditional teaching practices that weren’t commonly employed in academic classrooms. This site as well as the Drama and Inquiry class it documents, were meant to be “second stages” alternative places where teaching and learning looked different from more traditional models.

From the start, it was important to me that the site be constructed as an inquiry into my practice. Indeed, one entire section of the site is devoted to illustrating and explaining the ways in which that process of inquiry can sustain teacher learning over the course of a lifetime.

To tell the story of one particular inquiry, I began with a moment of dissonance from my teaching that past year: the unexpected virulent disdain some of my students expressed for feminism after reading a play by Paula Vogel. The site opens with an inciting incident of dissonance that sparked my inquiry, exemplified by the videos of the two opposing monologues written and performed by my students for their final “exam” in Drama and Inquiry class.

monologue1 monologue 2

From here, I was able to go back in time and tell the story of the creation of the Drama and Inquiry Class, describe the curriculum and pedagogy of the class, and share my preliminary insights and new knowledge I developed through the course of looking very closely at my students’ responses to the question of feminism.

Additionally, it was important for me to include my students in the construction of this web-site. During the summer and throughout the following year, I routinely emailed them (they had all since graduated and were attending college) and elicited their responses to the over-all construction of the site and to the inquiry into their conflicted feelings about feminism particularly the attitudes of the young men.

Two years ago, I was once again asked if I would be interested in documenting another aspect of my work on a new web-site as part of the Goldman-Carnegie Quest Project. This time I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Ann Lieberman explained to me that these new sites would be part of a larger project about capturing images of practice by exemplary teachers, in essence, opening up the classroom doors and revealing to prospective and experienced teachers as well as the general public the often hidden scenes of real learning that happen on a daily basis in our schools. She also explained that the sites would be used as texts in teacher education classes and that selected teacher educators would also be making web-sites documenting their use of the teacher sites in their classes. One teacher educator, Pam Grossman, had specifically requested web-sites devoted to engaging and rigorous instruction of Shakespeare’s plays, an activity that her prospective teachers needed help to envision. The result is a new site entitled “Double Double Toil and Trouble: Engaging Urban High School Students in the Study of Shakespeare“. This site situates the teaching of Macbeth within the framework of my English III curriculum. In addition to documenting the actual classroom activities through video, the site includes samples of student work and some of the projects I assigned before, during and after the actual reading and studying of the play. What I like best about this particular web-site and all of the other web-sites that were developed as part of the Quest project is that the video, the assignments and the student work are surrounded by commentary, in which the teacher explains her thinking about what is happening in each segment of the unit. Here, more than in the videos themselves, the viewer of these sites can see the teachers’ knowledge- in- action. As each teacher reflects upon what is happening in each classroom scene, the act of teaching can be seen for what it is – a thoughtful, deliberate intellectual, process that involves systematic long-term planning as well as countless in-the-moment decisions made in response to the immediate needs of the particular students in that classroom. Unlike the first multimedia website of my practice, which was organized around the process of inquiry and explicitly investigated a dilemma of practice, this time around the site emphasized my teaching of a particular text: Macbeth. The emphasis was on the enactment of my teaching in my English classroom and it was designed to represent exemplary practice. While I am pleased that the web-site represents my teaching and my students well ( after all, we all brought our best selves to the process, knowing we were being videotaped), I worry that in- service teachers and pre-service teachers in particular might view this site and assume that there were no moments of dissonance or conflict.

This aspect of teaching, the responsive reflection-in-action is even more important to present at this particular time when public school students and teachers are being bombarded by standardized objective tests to measure our performance developed by those who have not spent significant time in real classrooms Teacher knowledge is not being considered in the development of teacher-proof scripted programs that are being foisted upon many public school teachers in urban settings. In a recent commentary, published on October 11, 2006, in Education Week, Mike Rose decries the absence of the details of the lived experience of daily classroom life from the national conversation about schools. He writes, “ The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done day to day across the nation – the feel and clatter of teaching and learning.” He goes on to describe such details, sharing images of students examining glass test tubes in a chemistry, making sure they were clean before they added salt or hydrochloric acid to determine the polarity of different materials. In this scene, he notes that the students are learning a particular scientific concept – polarity – but they are also learning so much more. They are learning to inquire, to collaborate, to experiment, to ask questions and to grow intellectually and it is the teacher who is deftly fostering this learning environment through creating and shaping the experience.

These moments, like the ones documented on these web-sites, should not be imitated. After all, teaching happens in particular contexts with particular students and each action taken by a teacher in a classroom represents only one of an endless number of possible actions that teacher can take, drawing upon her knowledge of her content, her curriculum and her students. And like theater, teaching is performative; it is a lived through experience that occurs in a specific time and place that cannot be replicated. While these moments can serve as inspiration and visions of the possible, they can also serve as rich and complex case studies, ripe for in-depth analysis In particular, teacher educators using these sites as occasions for teacher learning must be encouraged to use them as places of inquiry and invite their students to question what they see happening in these classrooms, uncover the teachers’ beliefs and assumptions about teaching and learning, and look for the tensions between theory and practice. Through thoughtful inquiry, interpretation and analysis, viewers of these sites can make meaning for themselves.

Rose goes on to connect such moments of real learning in the public sphere of the school classroom to the very health of our democracy –“Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.” With the public availability of these sites on the very democratic World Wide Web, one will not have to travel the country visiting classrooms all across America as Rose did in the mid-1990’s for his book Possible Lives (1995) to gain a “lived felt sense of what public education means in a democracy.” It is here, now, in all of its living breathing complexity, waiting to be critiqued, expanded and built upon.


References

Rose, M. (2006). Grand Visions and Possible Lives. October 11th, 2006. http://www.edweek.org/

Rose, M. (1995). Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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