photo & text by nacrowe
i read the classic education memoir TEACHER MAN (SCRIBNER, 2005) by FRANK MCCOURT back when i was student teaching at BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL as part of my masters program at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. MCCOURT is of course the renowned PULITZER PRIZE winning author of ANGELA'S ASHES (SCRIBNER, 1996), a memoir of his childhood in IRELAND, but what most people don't know is that he was an educator. he taught for years at STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL in MANHATTAN, a public specialized magnet secondary institution considered by most the crown jewel of the NEW YORK public school system and has a pretty incredible list of NOBEL PRIZE laureates (more than most universities).
enough of all that though. what spoke out to me about TEACHER MAN at the time was that he went into detail about what an abject failure of an educator he started out as. how unprepared he was. how clueless he was about basic procedures and ideas regarding pedagogy.
at COLUMBIA there was just this constant barrage of information being thrown my way of at times competing ideologies regarding how a classroom should be modeled and what an effective assessment consists of. it was only later that i realized that they did this so that we are aware of our options as professionals and to choose such wisely based on our situation and the needs of our students. at the time i was at BROOKLYN TECH this overload of information wasn't helpful, but TEACHER MAN was. it gave me the idea the confidence that i would get better, that this was all part of the process and that i just needed to be open and self-aware of my options as my experience increased. i needed to make mistakes. for me that message was the real gift of this book. it gave me confidence.
i should also mention that MCCOURT was from LIMERICK. my ancestral hometown is in LIMERICK, specifically a nearby village called CAPPAWHITE. like my relatives he is a born storyteller. perfect for an english teacher.
funny enough after BROOKLYN TECH (and a brief tenure at my alma mater in KUWAIT) i found myself teaching at STUYVESANT. even at a hallowed institution like there where experienced teachers are let go having not been able to pass muster, my attitude never shifted. i gave myself permission to fail. in fact that permission followed me to ALBANIA, VENEZUELA, JAPAN and MYANMAR during my career and informed my ability to self-assess in the moment and make changes without fear. i found myself in fluid situations in unfamiliar cultures with shifting institutional parameters and it was always a challenge to find ways of pushing my students and addressing their needs. i attribute that confidence and self-awareness to reading MCCOURT's sober assessments of his own short-fallings as an educator and how he used such to fuel his passion for education. it was incredibly self-empowering.
and to be given the opportunity to work in the same department that MCCOURT once did was a true gift and honor that i still appreciate to this day.
anyway, great book. worth your time.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
listening to the greater discussion these days regarding ONLINE / REMOTE / HYBRID LEARNING is something i find interesting due to the fact that in a previous life i was an english teacher who worked abroad in international schools (specifically in VENEZUELA, JAPAN and MYANMAR) and utilized such. my experiences obviously were played out long before the current pandemic, which unfortunately shows no signs of abating and has made such a classroom a necessity.
what drew me to online learning was a sense of student accountability. when i was studying at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was this program run by a professor called the STUDENT PRESS INITIATIVE. the basic idea around such was to locate at-risk youth, usually students already incarcerated with the juvenile detention centers and have them write. volunteers would tutor them and eventually they would create a product that would be published yearly by the prestigious COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS. it was meant as a means of empowering students through writing. as published authors these kids would speak at forums and ultimately take pride in their work and those of others. the basic concept of leveraging the university to empower at-risk youth always stuck with me.
when i began teaching abroad i found myself in communities that were fiercely collectivistic. this meant my students were largely motivated by the opinions of their peers and family, unlike AMERICAN kids that are generally individualistic. my idea was to publish their written work, all of it. no tests or quizzes, but written papers and projects from class. the act of making it public for their classmates to see up the ante. usually i was attempting to reinforce basic literary, research and communication skills and by publishing such i leveraged the community against the individual. by and large it worked.
at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was also much promotion of project-based learning as opposed to testing. learning comes from the adaptation, modification and implementation of concepts rather than rote memorization of such (this pragmatic approach goes back to JOHN DEWEY). unfortunately now everything is the later and not the former.
given that i was overseas, i'd often have students write articles about their community, especially those people would not think to interview. in MYANMAR my students interviewed and wrote articles about ORPHANAGES, FARMERS, TAILORS, TEA LEAVE MERCHANTS, JADE MERCHANTS, BOUTIQUE OWNERS and ARTISANS within the community. these articles were then sent to friends of mine that taught in other countries and had their students read and write follow-up questions. what was amazing was that my students and those that asked the questions both employed english as a second language. if you are interested in checking out all the different projects i did in MYANMAR, they can be found HERE.
its one thing to have kids use quotes in a project, its another to raise the stakes and let them know that if they misquote their subject than they are effectively denying them their own voice. my kids took it very seriously because of such.
id also have them take surveys of their classmates, utilizing data. this sometimes dovetailed with concepts in their math class and we'd do some cross-curricular activities for both classes. very cool stuff.
in VENEZUELA i had a newspaper elective where students did everything from MOVIE REVIEWS, NEWSPAPER STAFF INTERVIEWS, TRAVEL ARTICLES, EDITORIALS to ARTIST/ARCHITECT PROFILES for the school newspaper EL MOSQUITO. my biggest accomplishment was getting students to buy in to participating in surveys that were the basis for all EDITORIALS. the whole enterprise reinforced literacy, reading and even NUMERACY. im still very much proud of it.
VIRTUAL ORAL PRESENTATIONS
for many parents there was a big emphasis on students being able to speak english well. i addressed this by having students use their phones to record them explaining part of a project. i had parents come in for one-on-one meetings in MYANMAR and the voice of their son or daughter speaking english clearly from a recording brought them to tears. examples of this are HERE, HERE and HERE.
below are two examples of videos my students in MYANMAR made for two different projects.
the first had them write and sing new lyrics to a popular song about something they learned that year, in the case of "ADD IT ONLINE" they sang about the final step in the WRITING PROCESS, which is PUBLISHING. they also all turn into ZOMBIES in the video and eat me alive.
the other video finds some students doing a S.T.E.A.L. (SPEECH / THOUGHTS / EMOTIONS / ACTONS / LOOKS) character analysis on the DISNEY character WALL-E.
whats awesome about doing these videos is that i could use them in other classes in the future. i was essentially stockpiling material for future students to utilize and have fun with.
as you can imagine, i miss teaching in ways i cant even verbalize. i literally could go on about online learning but i think you get the idea. unfortunately the way the education field has been going in recent years (away from project-based learning towards rote memorization), i am similarly glad to be out of the profession.
if you are interested in browsing the two website from my teaching days in VENEZUELA and MYANMAR, EL MOSQUITO is linked HERE and my class page for MYANMAR is linked HERE. enjoy!