Decisions and Doubt / by Michelle Nicola

The truth about teaching is that as much as we want it to, learning doesn’t move in a straight line. As much as I backwards plan, set goals, write objectives, plan the activities, assess, reflect and start the whole process over again, it’s not a guarantee that I will move a whole group of kids from point A to point B. 

I so want to be that teacher who has her whole year sketched out, who has all her lesson objectives tied to the big picture unit goals, and all the units circle back on one another, reinforcing and deepening and refining the learning in the previous unit. I want to be that teacher who scaffolds and differentiates and modifies and takes my kids’ learning from Point A all the way through Z in a nice, neat orderly fashion, based on lesson plans that include Garder’s multiple intelligences, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Standards, World Readiness Standards, ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines, forms and functions, maybe some OWL techniques, oh and the Five C’s of language learning- Communication, Comparisons, Communities, Cultures, .... is anyone else getting tired reading this list? 

The truth is, I am that teacher some of the time. Some of the time, I do some of those things. Lots of times, however, teaching is about making quick decisions in the moment, based on the students you have in front of you.

At this point, teaching in Coyolillo, I had to make some decisions. Due to holidays, my trip to Coahuila and inclement weather, I really only had a handful of lessons left to teach students in Coyolillo, 2 maybe 3 hours tops. My goal of creating a unit to answer questions about how our ancestors affect our identity seemed way out of reach. Coulda shoulda woulda’s bamboozled my mind. I coulda taught a smaller group of kids. I shoulda focused on writing a mini-novel, not this unit. I woulda planned things differently had I known about the holidays. I shoulda kept things simple!

I took a deep breath.  

I heard my dear friend Rabbi Brian’s voice in my head, “Honey, are you doing more good than harm?” 

Yes. I am.

I thought about a conversation I had with my cousin Jill. She’s a teacher too, and a damn good one.  She told me, “I think good language teaching is about setting up really engaging conversations.”

Bill Van Patten, author of While We’re On the Topic, might agree. In his book, BVP argues that language teaching is totally different from any other subject, and yet we try to teach it in the same way as we teach math- by going from point A to B. He outlines a compelling argument for why we are crazy to think that we can teach language by moving from one grammar topic to another- just think about it; did anyone ever sit you down at age 2 and say, “Ok honey, first you need a noun or a pronoun, then you need a verb in the correct tense, and then an object . . .” My guess is that the people surrounding you engaged you in conversation that was compelling to you. For my nephew Adam (age 2), this means we talk a lot about trucks, backhoes, and construction sites.

So here’s what I decided to do: engage my students in conversations that mattered to them. That meant teaching my colleague Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson to the middle school students. I knew from my conversations with my friend Daniela and my own observations that none of the middle school girls wore their hair natural, which is not a problem, but as Daniela told me, “I just want them to know they have a choice.” I hoped that Hinderlie’s lesson could help them see beauty in many ways of wearing hair. 

For the high school students, I designed a timeline lesson that would hopefully get them thinking about their town’s history, and how they are a part of that history as well as get them to start questioning “official history.” It was a risk because I was effectively building the curriculum ship while sailing it, but I wanted to explore where this idea could go.