Learning can be uncomfortable

I have spent the month of July doing what I love. I have tanned, I have read some amazing books, I have played with my dogs, planned for next year, read more books and generally just relaxed. One of my favourite things to do is to learn new things. I am currently reading this interesting, thought provoking book.

As I prepare to teach 9th grade Language Arts and the looming annoyance that is the Provincial Achievement tests sits on the horizon I pondered a lot about how I can take my teaching to the next step as I move up with my grade 8 students. For some, next year will be our third year together. They are familiar with my style and I am respectful of how they like to learn. This year we stepped it up to allow for as much voice and choice as possible with #ProjectSpeak. So I look at this Joy Sucking Dementor that is closing in on these joyful writers I have had the pleasure of learning with and I need to know how to best arm them. To continue with my Harry Potter analogy my students need to know how to summon a Petronus.

I have plenty of experience with Provincial Tests. In Alberta, for my non-Alberta readers, we have Provincial mandated exams in grade 6-9-12. For language arts this consists of a reading comprehension exam and a written exam. The written exam in grade 6 and 9 are two parts (I have not taught 12th grade so won’t speak to that format), in 6th grade students are require to write a narrative piece and craft a newpaper article style informative piece. I became very good at teaching my students in grade 6 to take these tests. We practice writing off a prompt multiple times a year, we practice writing these article responses multiple times a year. My writing curriculum was entrenched in the test. My students had been conditioned from both prior teachers and parents to think these tests mattered. My admin would claim the results didn’t matter but they certainly loved to share that our students performed higher than most in our division and placed well provincially. I felt pretty good about myself and my amazing team as we improved on results year after year. The tests stressed us out, they stressed the kids out but they were excited to hear how they did and celebrate when we were finished.

The learning really came for me when I left my school and grade and moved up to 7-8 and this year 9 and started talking to my students. Taking a page from Pernille Ripp I asked my students what made writing great and what made writing suck. The amount of responses that trashed narrative writing, the amount of students that talked about how much they hated writing and hated writing based off a picture prompt caught me off guard. I hadn’t asked my previous students because I just knew they had to accomplish the task so we taught to it. I felt terrible because I knew in that moment that my students likely felt similar. That I hadn’t helped them become writers I had only taught them how to take a test.

So as I read “Why They Can’t Write” I am uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable learning that I have contributed to a problem. I am uncomfortable knowing that I was not preparing my students for the future despite being celebrated for doing a “great job” in teaching them. So I have two options as I approach these grade 9 tests. I can go back and teach to the test, roll out the 5 paragraph essay structure and practice, practice, practice or I can teach them to write. Write like real writers. So I am digging into this book and my practice. DO I want good results? Absolutely. Should I sacrifice my students joy of writing to achieve it? NOPE.

This whole topic has made me question my teaching in the past, the years of practices that are now questionable at the very least and in some cases just offensive. The token economies, the gamified classroom, the Ancient Athens citizen simulations complete with slave interactions. All of these practices ended far before I joined Twitter and the conversations around how some may damage students. They left my practice because I listened and learned. I loved my Athens Project that looked at all elements of Ancient Athens civilization. I loved the Agora at the end, I loved reading their journals but when they wrote about slaves I felt it was wrong but outcomes about social interactions were in the curriculum and so we included it. I remember teaching grade 4 and I am horrified that I had students design their own tipi. Again learning to be better, listening to feedback and ending practices that are harmful, insulting or just plain terrible.

I am grateful for the learning that I have been able to participate in. I don’t always love how that learning comes. It can be uncomfortable to be told you are wrong, that your practices are harmful or ill-informed. But the power comes in the conversations that follow. My teaching of writing would never improve if I decided that the best measure was performance on a stupid standardized exam. My reading instruction would never have evolved beyond levels and teacher selected texts if I had not been open to the works of amazing educators like Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp and Kylene Beers because my kids were crushing their tests but I was crushing their reading spirits. Knowing that now I do better.

On twitter this morning I talked about learning being all about growing and sometimes we get growing pains. This is natural, being defensive of your practice when questions is natural because it is uncomfortable. Being open to the feedback and questions of others however gives us a chance to stretch and to grow despite the discomfort.

Learning can be uncomfortable but if you want to get stronger you have to work at it.

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