Guest Blog Post: Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

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This past July, one of my long time wishes finally came true. I finally got a sister! We welcomed into our family Jane, who married my brother, Brian. I’m thankful to finally have a younger sister who I can go shopping with and do “girly” things with. I’m also thankful that she’s a passionate educator making a difference in the lives of her students Korea. This is her first year teaching middle school and high school English at an international school in Seoul.

Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

By: Jane Kim

When I take a step back and actually realize what I’m doing, I’m in utter… awe.

As a high school English teacher, I often get comments like “Oh, you’re an English teacher? So you must really love books, huh. What’s your favorite?” It’s a fair question, but I still struggle to know how to respond. To be honest, it has been a while since I sat down to read a literature book for pleasure, and no, I don’t absolutely love reading and writing. And to be really honest, I’ve often struggled with reading and writing throughout high school and beyond.

So, how and why am I teaching English to high school students? I’m often reminded of the answer when I get comments from my students about how much they hate writing essays and how hard it is to understand “Paradise Lost”. Strangely, these comments don’t frustrate me; they invigorate me. They remind me of how I used to be.

I remember reading many books as a child because I liked fun, exciting and moving stories. I mean, who doesn’t? If I hadn’t been exposed to reading books, I think I would’ve gotten into movies, cartoons (now it’s anime), or even video games, like many of my students now seem to enjoy way more than books. I also wrote a lot of stories and poetry growing up, because after reading so much, my hand just naturally began to imitate what I read. My own creativity was fueled by the stories I was immersed in. And most of all, I know I wasn’t the only one. Look at the posts below! All of Jee Young and Melody’s students love to read!

So why did so many of us stop enjoying reading and writing in high school?

Something happened as we got older. No longer were we receiving praise for our writing, but we were seeing red marks all over the things we wrote. We received A’s and B’s on some papers, but we really can’t remember those. There had to have been things that we wrote well, but they were buried under the red scribble about missing commas, “awkward” sentences, question marks, “too long”, “too short”, wrong font, disorganized, lack of flow, and the list goes on. And as for reading, well, homework, Sparknotes and academies had taken over. No time for that.

Of course, there are things that I, as a teacher, have a responsibility of teaching my students. Yes, proper grammar and writing style is pretty important. Yes, picking up on the author’s intent and techniques in a reading may also be important. But at the cost of what?

When students walk into my classroom, they have either begun or are in the midst of another day as a teenager. I have 70 minutes with them before they move on with their day. There are a countless number of skills that they need to learn. But becoming more apt in reading and writing does not motivate my students. Some have decided that they’re already bad at it, and others have developed a formula for doing enough to get the grade. And 70 minutes is simply too long to teach irrelevant skills to unmotivated students.

I’m learning that teaching English is much more about teaching than it is about English. In the midst of broken families and vicious teenage social lives, the space for teenagers to articulate their honest thoughts has become smaller and smaller. They may feel trapped in societal norms that define who they are, leaving them with no outlet for their God-given creativity. If my classroom is not a safe place for my students to express themselves, then I’m not doing my job.

When I can create a classroom environment where my students feel safe enough to voice their opinions, be honest about their feelings, and have conversations with me about what they are learning (or not learning), they are more likely to engage in the material. When they are given the time and space to write down what they think about, about things they’re actually interested in, without having to perform, here’s the shocker: they can write. When they can talk about the poem they just read without having the pressure to say the right answer, guess what: they can articulate exactly why they hate that line (and then write a poem about why they hate it). And when they can see that I am not looking for mistakes but for pieces of gold in a goldmine, they are more motivated to produce their best work.

In less than one year, I’ve buckled under the pressure of improving students’ writing skills. I’ve delighted over hearing some students say that they finally found writing relevant to them. I’ve cried from frustration over consistently unmotivated students. I’ve seen students beaming from their breakthroughs in their discussions of certain texts. I’ve had to apologize to students for my short temper. And through it all, I’ve discovered that I absolutely love teaching because I love seeing my students discover something new about themselves.

I’ve learned that the moment I stop learning about my students and their needs is the moment I stop teaching. It’s funny: when I do that, I get to learn so much more about myself and my creative abilities to not only teach, but also to read and write. So this is my prayer as a teacher: God, give me the grace to never stop learning.

Author Visit: Rosemary Wells

One of the cool things about being at a big school is that we get some amazing authors visiting! This past week, we had Rosemary Wells, who wrote many well-loved children’s books including Noisy Nora, Max & Ruby, and Yoko.  Not only does she write these books, but she illustrates them as well.

Even though she was not working with my division, I got to attend a special session with her afterschool for parents and teachers. There is something so magical about meeting the authors of books that you love. I’m always so amazed and in awe of them. For me, as an avid reader,  they feel like celebrities.

Rosemary shared with us a bit about herself and journey to becoming a an author. She was actually an artist first and went to school for art. She said the writer inside her came out later on when she was an adult, after she had some life experiences and stories to write. I definitely agree with that. The writer in me keeps coming out more, the older I get!

Rosemary also shared that a lot of the stories she writes are nonfiction in the sense that she gets her ideas from her every day life. She continued to share with us the importance of fostering in kids a love for reading. She adamantly shared her concerns about how many people are focused on students reading level and labeling readers. She continued to emphasize the importance of instilling a love for reading in our kids.

We also found out that it was her birthday and celebrated with this wonderfully made cake from a parent. It was an amazing afternoon of getting to meet Rosemary and she even signed my book! I bought her new book, Time-Out Sophie, which was just published. I highly recommend this book! I know many young kids will be able to relate to getting  a “time-out”. Now, I can add this to our “two apples a day” collection of signed books. Thank you Rosemary!

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Author Visit with Rukhsana Khan

Our school hosts various authors throughout the year,which is pretty amazing, considering we are all the way in Singapore! This year, we had an author visit from a well known children’s author, Rukhsana Khan. Her books include Big Red Lollipop, Muslim Child, and The Rose in My Carpet. Not only is she an amazing and accomplished author, but she was a captivating speaker! The room full of 5th grade kids were engaged, excited and laughed as they listened to her stories.

In one of our sessions with her, she shared her story about immigrating to Canada from Pakistan at a young age. She shared about her different struggles including being seriously bullied for being different in her school.   She shared with us her journey to becoming a writer and the funny stories along the way. She had the entire audience eagerly waiting to hear what happened next. (I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who wasn’t an amazing story teller!)

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Rukhsana also shared a few stories of teachers that made a strong positive impact on her life and encouraged her to write. One teacher had her keep a creative writing journal. She even brought in the journal and showed us the letter that the teacher wrote to her after an entry. One of the students asked her to read it aloud. She shared the positive feedback that the teacher wrote in her notebook calling her a poet.

Our words can impact our students positively or negatively. I was reminded of the power that I have as a teacher. I was reminded that I need to continue to tell my students that they are writers. Thank you Rukhsana for inspiring our students and even our teachers!

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Also, I found out that our school hosts an annual children’s literature conference! How cool is that?! This year it will take place from Feb. 1-3rd. We will have the following authors presenting: Chris Crutcher, Kadir Nelson, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and Deborah Wiles.  I can’t wait to meet and learn from them! Check out the website for more information on registration and the authors.

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The Great Unexpected Package

It was my first sunny and humid Halloween morning in Singapore.  I looked at my school mailbox and I found an unexpected package peeking out. It was sent from my friend Jane in Chicago. I wondered what she could have sent me. My birthday had already passed, and Christmas was still months away.

As I read the description on the customs label, it said the content was a book?! I opened the package quickly and at first glance, I couldn’t believe it. How did she know this was the book that I’ve been wanting? I’ve been waiting to see when it would sell online here in Singapore since it just came out in the States. I’ve been reading blog posts and tweets about this book! I couldn’t wait to get my own copy. How did she know?

It was the new Sharon Creech book called The Great Unexpected. I immediately pulled the book out of the package, opened it up and immediately stumbled across this.

I couldn’t believe it. Sharon Creech had signed the book to “2 Apples a Day”!  With even more confusion, I read the note inside, of course on Domo stationary from Jane. Now it all made sense. My friend heard of her book signing nearby in Chicago and got her to sign a copy for us. Jane mentioned our blog to Sharon, and she said she knew about it and even followed it.

When Melody and I discovered that Sharon followed our blog a few months ago, we were soo ecstatic. We are both HUGE fans of Sharon Creech and love her books! Now we have our first book that has been signed by the author for 2 apples a day! If any other authors want to send us signed copies of their book, we will gladly accept and blog about them too. 🙂

So a huge thank you to Jane Cho for getting the book signed and sent to us! Also, a big thank you to Sharon Creech as well. I will definitely be blogging about the book after I read it. When I told my students the story about the book, they begged me to read it to them! Make sure to check out Sharon’s blog: http://sharonkaycreech.blogspot.sg/

 

The Act of Writing

Happy August everyone! I hope everyone is having a fabulous summer, especially if you are a teacher. You deserve the time for rest and rejuvenation. I feel like other people (non teachers) always get jealous that we have such long vacations, but honestly, if we had to do what we do, all year long with no summer break, I don’t know how we would survive! 🙂

My summer vacation is pretty much over now, so I guess it’s time to get back to blogging! This past July, I had a chance to attend the Teachers College Reading Institute. It was amazing as always. One of the keynote speakers was author Christopher Paul Curtis, who was a funny and charismatic speaker, which would be expected if you have read his books. He kept us laughing, smiling and almost crying with his keynote speech. This one thing he said that really stuck with me was how he described writing.

“Writing is an act of revelation. The more I wrote, the more revealed I would be. ”

-Christopher Paul Curtis

As he shared stories about how his writing connected and reflected his own life in many ways, I was reminded about how my writing reveals who I am. I was also reminded of the importance in keeping up my writing, especially as I am going through these big changes this year. So stay tuned for more posts, hopefully more on the summer institute and transitioning to a new school and country!