How Teaching without “Resources” Made Me a Better Teacher

I remember my first year of teaching.  I was handed a stack of textbooks, a paperbound “teacher’s guide” and the tests for the literature series.  All I had to do was make the assignments, give the students the answers to the questions at the end of the selections, and administer the test.  That was teaching.  As I continued to teach, the teaching supports grew–transparencies with art images for writing and making thematic connections to the literature; related grammar instruction; vocabulary supports; even some enrichment projects to supplement the lessons.  All I had to do was plug in the identified objectives, give students the answers to the end of selection questions, and give them the selection tests and the unit tests. The textbook publishers sent those boxes of support materials to us when we adopted the textbooks.  Nothing could be easier, right?  Supposedly, according to the publishers, these materials aligned with state standards and therefore prepared our students for the various state-mandated testing in the spring.  The “activities” were high-interest, and our students would be thoroughly engaged in learning.

Four years ago, I took a teaching position in a small private school.  I was given the usual materials–the huge “family Bible’ sized teacher’s edition of the literature textbook complete with guided reading questions (and answers) and the selection of activities at the end of the selection that appeared also in the students’ texts, but I had the luxury of having the answers. But these textbooks were old–I mean REALLY old!  My teacher’s editions were held together with duct tape as were the majority of the student texts.  And there were no support materials!  Besides, I knew that students didn’t learn from answering someone else’s questions that already had the answered predetermined.  And I knew that the students were bored silly when that’s all the lesson amounted to.

So, I began developing my own materials.  I read the texts and determined what I thought were the important elements to focus on.  Often, I disagreed with textbook publishers’ assessments of those objectives.  I paid more attention to what my students needed to know and to be able to do.  I pitched the teacher’s guide completely.  I began creating my own curriculum. I put into practice what I had been learning about literacy and reading all these years.  I am a better teacher for it.

Theory is important; don’t get me wrong.  And those textbook support materials are based on sound theory, for the most part.   But textbook supports are made in response to standardized testing programs.  (Often the textbook publishers are also the publishers of standardized tests.) And I don’t know about your students, but I do not have standardized or norm-referenced students!  Developing a lesson plan or unit plan for my students is like developing a plan for herding cats!  I need one shepherd dog for each student, and even then, I’m not sure I can get all those “cats” back into the herd!

Madeleine Hunter taught us to “monitor and adjust.”  Teacher’s editions do not allow for much adjusting or monitoring, for that matter.

Today, my teaching looks very different.  It’s more hands-on and a bit less lecture.  It is becoming an exploration of ideas with my main question: “What do you think?”  Yes, I often troll, er, consult unit plans from Teachers Pay Teachers, and spend more money on those things than I should.  But I am not a slave to them.  I pick an activity from this one to combine with an activity I read about in another teacher’s blog to segue into something I just thought about!  I teach the skills, too, that students need.  Middle school students do need structure and scaffolding.  I unashamedly teach the RACE writing structure.  I insist on it when they answer what my English teacher called discussion questions.  I do have them learn definitions and identify examples of figurative language or pick out the events that form the climax of the story.  But we do it differently.  I do less telling so that students can do more doing.

It’s hard to teach this way!  Someone said that if the teacher goes home more tired than the students, then the teacher is working way too hard.  Well, I go home tired, but so do the students.  Teaching and learning is hard work. But the reward is worth it.


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