By Patrick Allen
The end of May marks the close of my 33rd year as a classroom teacher. I blame it on my wife! When were were dating, I had big plans of becoming a speech and language pathologist, but one evening she handed me a copy of Donald Graves’s book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (1983) that she had just read. “You have to read this book, it’s amazing!” She was right. I devoured it. And, although I graduated with a degree in Communication Disorders that spring, I immediately went back to get a master’s level teaching certificate. I couldn’t not teach.
I’ve been joking with my colleagues that I’m in my “twilight years.” But I don’t necessarily mean that period of time where ambiguity, forgetfulness, and gradual decline take over the human spirit. Rigor-edu-mortis has not begun to set in quite yet. When I say “twilight,” I mean that time where you find yourself reflecting and “whispering secrets before we go our separate ways” (Fletcher 1997). I think that I’ve finally learned to be a listener.
My teaching career has lasted double most marriages in the United States. I’ve been blessed enough to work with many leaders in our field, forging friendships with fellow literacy experts across Colorado and around the country. I’ve been blessed with life-long friendships that were born of our common love of learning. I’ve been blessed enough to teach over 825 students, give or take a few, from second graders to fifth graders. I’ve been blessed to work side-by-side some of the most amazing teachers on a day-to-day basis. I love working with learners–both children and adults. And, sometimes the best learning comes through listening to learners reflect on their own thinking, their own metacognition.
This past week, during reader’s workshop, I was eavesdropping on my students during a “turn and talk.” We are knee deep in a study of Synthesis and I want to gather all the wisdom I can from my students. I always uncover gems when I listen carefully to the “sea of talk” (Britton 1970). As I listened, I overheard Cesar say: “I have to ask myself, am I doing this because my teacher asked me to or am I doing this because I want to make myself better–you have to put yourself into this process… do it to help YOU!” I immediately grabbed my notebook and jotted down his words.
You see, Cesar gets it. In fact, he’s publicly announced to his classmates, “We’re lucky. We get choice and freedom. We aren’t forced to do it. In this class we’re inspired to do it! You aren’t just handed the gusto for life, you have to develop that gusto for yourself! I like having the chance to give my ideas out, choose the books I want to read, and have the time to do it… every day!” Freedom is a very important part of the dream for Cesar and his family. Kids like Cesar cause us to lean a little closer and look at the learner in the eye… and listen.
Don Graves reminded us, “Through our active listening, children become our informants. Unless children speak about what they know, we lose out on what they know and how they know it. Through our eyes and ears we learn from them; their stories, how they solve problems, what their wishes and dreams are, what works/doesn’t work, their vision of a better classroom, and what they think they need to learn to succeed” (Graves 1994). I learn from kids like Cesar every day.
The same holds true with our colleagues. For me, learning alongside a colleague gives me the energy, the fodder, and the wherewithal to create the kinds of workshops worthy of my students and their intellect. For the past three years, I have garnered such brilliance from my teammate, Danny. Danny’s one of those passionate young educators who just wants to hone his craft, sharpen his pedagogy, understand and apply research-based practices, and do what’s best for the learners in his care. He’s well on his way.
At least three times a week, Danny and I sit and talk after school about learners and learning. We share the highs and lows of our day. We share the work our students are doing. We share books and mentor texts. We talk about the thinking we’ve garnered and the charts we’ve developed with children. We listen to each other with respectful, honest ears. There’s lots of laughter, straight talk, and pondering. There’s a mutual respect that’s developed between the two of us.
In The Energy to Teach we’re reminded, “The essential base to being a good colleague is listening and resonating to the emotional tones of other staff members. Listening to a colleague does not necessarily mean agreeing… good colleagues have strong emotional, supportive ties” (Graves 2001). That means that our after school conversations have a purpose. When you have a coaching/mentoring relationship with a colleague, it strengthens the work you do with your students. I’m know I’m better teacher for it. Danny’s a great mentor.
I’ve been following Laura Benson on Twitter for years (@LBopenbook) and recently she’s been sharing posts about her literacy mentors… from Shelley Harwayne to Donald Graves to Don Murray to Karin Hess. The thing that impresses me the most about Laura is that she listens to, and honors, the experts in our field. She does not veer away from her deeply held beliefs. I’m sure Laura would agree that sound underpinnings are the bedrock of our teaching souls.
There’s no stagnation in our work if we choose to latch onto the coattails of great literacy leaders and carry their innovation into our own work. Great teaching is great teaching. I wouldn’t have been in the business of kids for 33 years if it weren’t for Ellin Keene, Katie Ray, Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Donald Graves, Shelley Harwayne, Debbie Miller, Cris Tovani, Lester Laminack, Linda Reif, Mary Howard, and SO many others sharing their expertise with me. Sound instruction begets sound instruction begets sound instruction. Who can argue Rumelhart, Clay, Rosenblatt, Goodman? Innovators of literacy insights. My colleagues, near and far, feed me.
“We need to turn around the rhetoric of ‘not enough’ in education. Take energy from what our students bring, knowing every day that our students do learn” (Graves 2001). Listening takes time. My friend and colleague, Dana Berg, often reminds me that all our students need is “a voice, an ear, and a conversation.” They need us to listen.
I’m so glad I listened to my girlfriend (now wife) Susan when she told me to read Don’s book. It is one of the times I not only listened, but ACTED. And as I ease into the beauty of this year’s twilight, I’ll continue to hear the voices of my students and my colleagues. I’ll wait, watch, and wonder… listening for the whispers the next learning opportunity brings.
What will you be listening for? And, with whom.
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A few ponderings….
- What are the ways you’re listening in on your students and using their conversations as authentic nudges for instruction?
- What are you doing to make “talk” public?
- What rituals and routines in your classroom nurture natural conversation?
- How are you learning from a trusted colleague?
- How are you setting aside time to reflect? With Self? With others?
- How are you filtering your own professional growth?
- In what ways are you strengthening your philosophical underpinnings?
- In what ways are you using research to support your interactions with children?
- In what ways are you revisiting the reasons you became an educator in the first place?
Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.
Graves, D. (1994) A Fresh Look at Writing. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.
Graves, D. (2001) The Energy to Teach. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.
Fletcher, R. (1997) Twilight Comes Twice. New York, NY. Clarion Books.
Patrick Allen has been a classroom teacher for over 30 years. He is the author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (both with Stenhouse). He has worked as a staff developer throughout the United States and Canada. When he’s not with children or colleagues, he’s busy being a husband, a father to his four grown children, and a “Grumpa” to his grandson, Ryker.