We Are the Books We Read

As part of my Graduate Studies I was asked: What brought me to teaching? What subjects / grade levels chose you? What were / are your ideals.  Here is my response.

I can’t pin point a moment in time when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.  Rather it was a series of events and collaborations that brought me to who I am as an educator today.  After completing my Bachelor’s degree I followed a friend to a small city in Taiwan and taught English to children who were seemingly as foreign to me as I was to them.  Although this was my first paid teaching job I didn’t “find” myself as a teacher as a result.  What I discovered was a sense of freedom that a young man in his early 20s must feel as he arrives in a foreign country on the other side of the world with no return ticket booked.  At this point in my life I was still discovering who I was and wasn’t consciously reflecting on my self as a teacher.

I always thought that with a degree in History it would be the subject that “chose” me.  I came home from Taiwan, and after I finished my Education degree, I once again booked a one-way ticket to the other side of the world and taught Geography and Religious Studies at Goff’s School in Cheshunt, a town north of London.  Teaching in the U.K. was an important event in my career.  When I left the school my Head of Faculty commented that I went to the U.K. thinking I would educate the children of Britain, but in fact, it was the children of Britain that educated me.  No truer words have been spoken.

Again I moved home and was hired by the Surrey School District.  I spent the first few years teaching Social Studies and Physical Education at two different secondary schools.  Not quite there but I was getting closer to the Social Studies / History teacher I thought I was going to be.  But in one of those years I made a connection with teachers who believed in the primacy of literacy as foundational to learning in all subject areas which had a profound impact on who I am as an educator to this day.  I was introduced to proficient readers research and research on formative assessment (funnily enough the first Pro-D I ever attended was in the U.K. and Dylan Wiliam was the presenter).  Looking back, these were the times that started to define my ideals of what was possible for me as an educator.  It became clear to me that my job as a teacher was to help students make meaning of the many different texts they encounter day to day in all aspects of their lives.

By chance, the next year I was placed at a school and was fortunate to teach a class of students in grade 8 who had been identified as struggling readers and writers.  I was responsible for helping these 11 boys and 4 girls learn how to make sense of what they read, represent their thinking in purposeful and organized ways and how to interact with each other in meaningful ways.   Teaching this class had its challenges but it played an important role in shaping my ideals and beliefs about teaching. When teaching a class like this I couldn’t rely on marks to motivate students.  I couldn’t rely on saying, “read and take notes.”  I couldn’t get students to learn faster with the threat of “because it’s on the test.”  Having experienced little past success.  They entered the class believing there was little they could do to improve their reading and writing abilities.  I had to teach them strategies to “un-thaw” the meaning in the words frozen on the pages.  I had to give them hours and hours to practice without any penalty.  I had to teach them to organize their thinking and create logical, coherent pieces of writing.  In our last unit, to prove to them that they were becoming skillful readers together we read and responded to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  With scaffolding and support they made meaning of the play and were captivated by it, as many are.  It proved to me that with a strategic and responsive approach I could have a substantial impact on moving students forward in their learning, especially one’s who struggle the most.  They left believing that with continued practice and reflection they could be successful readers and writers.  I taught them in grade 8.  They graduate next month and I can only hope our year together had as profound an impact on them as it did on me.  I might never know, but not knowing comes with being a teacher.

To conclude, I believe that we are the books we read.  The books we read have the power to change us.  We learn about our past but also ourselves as we engage with the ideas, the characters and experiences that emerge from the words of others.  I believe books give us different perspectives, help us make personal connections and engage in thinking and learning from the words of others.  I want my students to believe this about books.  I grew up a reader.  I was interested in the written word, and from a young age, read for pleasure.  It was a way to go to Treasure Island, walk through the Hundred Acre Wood, and solve mysteries with the Hardy Boys.  In later years I found authors that would impact my thinking and worldview.  I go back to them often: Orwell, Atwood, Vonnegut, Huxley, Rushdie and Bradbury to name a few.  At present as a grad student at SFU I have added other authors, some fictional and others academic, and will continue to seek out ideas that challenge my assumptions, my thoughts and my beliefs, as an educator and more importantly as a person.  And I believe my job, as teacher, is to help my students do the same.

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