Coming Full Circle: Connection and Colleagueship in Teaching

One of my favorite e.e. cummings poems is "i carry your heart." I've often thought of this poem when I think about my teaching mentors-- the ways in which my own teaching is informed by the extraordinary classrooms I've had a chance to be in as a learner. And I carry those educators' teaching practices-- I carry them in my own teaching.

Yesterday I had one of the most fulfilling experiences of my teaching career-- to guest-teach in the classroom that served as a major inspiration for me to enter the profession-- Connie Weber's classroom at Emerson School in Ann Arbor, MI.

Just over a month ago, through intent or serendipity Connie found me on facebook and we were both delighted to learn that, since the day long ago when I was a student in her elementary classroom, I have become an educator myself and now prepare novices as a professor of Education at Alverno College.

This has been no short journey-- in fact, I think it had been nearly 30 years since I'd last seen Connie. But as I shared with her students, some things stay the same, and some things change. I remember her classroom being one where relationships mattered-- she got to know each of us as individuals, and expected us to get to know and show kindness to each other as well (as an example, one of her particular strategies-- "Nice Notes in a Circle"-- I conduct now in the form of end-of-seminar appreciations for the thinking of colleagues in my college courses). She expected us to learn in and out of the classroom. She expected us to show our learning in multiple ways. She was tall, and creative, and free, and she had a horse (which was *very* amazing to my ten-year-old self.)

When I learned that I'd be returning to Ann Arbor for a family visit, I asked Connie if I could come volunteer in her classroom. She responded that it would be an honor for her if I would guest teach her students-- they were working on a novel and if I could read it, I could develop a lesson about its themes for them. I jumped at the chance.

The Talking Earth, by Jean Craighead George, is about a kind of "vision quest" undertaken by a Seminole girl named Billie Wind. Throughout the novel, Billie encounters various experiences that demand that she position herself between competing forces-- some even elemental, as she finds safety in an underground earthen cave as a wildfire rages above her, and finds sustenance from the water next to the cave. This is not an experience likely to be shared by any of Connie's current students, but some of the other tensions Billie experiences are-- those of whether to embrace family and cultural traditions or find new ways, whether to explore new worlds or get to know your own home area, whether to use existing resources or develop new tools.

I thought it would be interesting to ask the students to work collaboratively (itself a process of navigating tension) to identify the ways in which a set of competing dynamics can both have positives, and that in decision-making, individuals have to position themselves between them.

I also did a little research into Seminole culture and traditions and found that the textile art forms used by the Seminole make vivid use of oppositional colors, creating harmonic patterns out of divergent shapes and forms.

The presentation I presented asked students to identify these tensions and create a quilt square that made them visible. As they still have four chapters left to read in the book, in our sharing out I asked them to hazard some predictions about how these tensions will culminate or resolve in the rest of the book.

In my work as a teacher educator, I visit lots of different kinds of classrooms and get to see many different ways in which my students' cooperating teachers create a learning environment-- how they arrange physical space, but also how they arrange relational space, setting norms for respectful and vibrant discourse. What a feeling it was, to circulate around the students as they worked, noting that it's still clear that the dynamics that made me feel like a creative, accountable, artistic, inquiring thinker 30 years ago are still in place in Connie's work with her students today.

It also struck me what a powerful profession this is-- that the choices we make with our students resonate so far beyond our quotidian interactions. Talk about "ripples of hope"-- the many extraordinary teachers I've been fortunate enough to have, I carry them in my own teaching, and I pass along, I hope, equally lasting ripples in the teaching practices of my own students.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Connie. And tell your students I'll see them next Monday morning for our followup lesson via Polycom. I'm looking forward to their summative analysis of the book. :)

>>For the rest of you-- whose teaching practices do you carry in your own teaching?



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Tags: connection, guest, learning, mentoring, teacher, teaching

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Comment by Connie Weber on June 8, 2010 at 3:53pm
Thank you, Kristina--so good to hear from you.
All students should get to have such lessons; all students should be able to be immersed in such active, personalized, deep learning.
In my current grad class we're talking about how the lessons people think are geared towards the "most gifted" are the lessons that should be going on for all students everywhere.
A lot of people seem to be stuck in an odd form of reasoning that goes like this:
"Well, we drilled the information over and over and the students didn't 'get it,' so now we have to give them MORE of the drilling, longer and harder.
No wonder our drop out rate is so high. No wonder so many students feel the real learning goes on outside of school.
I'd love to see your classes, BTW. And would love to have you stop by to do an Econ lesson with my fifth graders... you game? :-)
Comment by Kristina McElheran on June 8, 2010 at 9:49am
A stunningly moving post! Wow. Makes me envious of the freedom and creativity you have in your classrooms.
Comment by Desiree Pointer Mace on June 1, 2010 at 7:25pm
Those photos are fantastic, Connie-- like time travel! I'm nearly certain that the second one down was from my class. I recognize some of the kids in the top photo (and though for a minute that the girl in the plaid was me, except for the missing glasses, so it must be someone else!)

p.s. hope you got my blog post to your class site today-- not sure if I might have inadvertently set it to "only friends" or not.
Comment by Connie Weber on June 1, 2010 at 3:24pm
Heh... here goes nothing... pictures from the old days on South Seventh.




Comment by Connie Weber on May 23, 2010 at 4:25pm








Comment by Or-Tal Kiriati on May 21, 2010 at 1:20am
:-)
I've left journalism after a successful 15 year long career... and that was about14 years ago.
I only went back to writing a couple of years ago. Strange, ha?
What I found out is that all the roads lead to education. I find the answer to most world problems in education.
Comment by Cynthia Annchild on May 20, 2010 at 5:48pm
Or-Tai, a journalist interested in education, but surely also a poet.
Comment by Or-Tal Kiriati on May 20, 2010 at 8:31am
This is very moving.
I remember thinking, until I was about 14, that I would surely become a teacher, as my mother.
But one year later I was already a journalist working for a local newspaper, and the roads led me elsewhere.
I am re-discovering education from a totally different perspective for the past several years.
It's a mission now for me, not a profession. And a strong passionate mission too. Heated by this fireside... ;-)
Comment by Cynthia Annchild on May 19, 2010 at 12:58pm
I joined up so I could say thank you to Desiree and Connie. Both of you are clearly not only "teachers down to the bone" but also storytellers in the finest tradition. The experience two of you created across the span of 30 years is the essence of teaching--somebody sets somebody else on the path--again sets someone else on the path and on and on,again and again the circles grow--and the world is made just a little more human, a bit more gentle. Makes me think there should be a collection of stories like that. Thanks again.
Comment by scott smith on May 19, 2010 at 7:54am
What a great story!

Connie now knows the feeling that Ken Griffey Sr. had when he and Junior hit home runs in the same inning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Griffey,_Sr.#The_Griffeys

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