The Art of Innovation and Excellence in the Classroom

Let’s dedicate this third installment of The Unrealized Maine Classroom to every educator who spent a large fraction of this shortest weekend of the year planning for lessons, scoring report cards, grading tests, or any combination of all three.  For the record, that would account for just about all of them.  We’ll come back to this in the final paragraphs.

I met Maine’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Dorman, two months ago at the hearing I mentioned in the last post, in front of the state legislature’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education.   We only spoke briefly, and exchanged a high-five, but from that short interaction and her testimony I knew she would be a great resource for The Unrealized Maine Classroom.  I recently reached out to her and asked her to recollect a fabulous teaching experience she has had and share some of that experience with us.  I was looking for a lesson or unit that she felt was successful, that resulted in a net gain of knowledge, and inspired her students.  This kind of instruction is what all teachers aim for; everybody is happy, and there is visible evidence of learning.  In particular, I wanted Ms. Dorman, a middle school language arts teacher, to share what kind of effort and commitment went into planning the lesson or unit.  

In the project she shares, she had the flexibility to innovate.  It is possible to teach a stellar lesson without innovating; a teacher might be inspired to use someone else’s idea and net the same intended results.  Or a teacher might come across a terrific lesson embedded within a curriculum that connects with students and also produces great results.  But in this case, Ms. Dorman was primarily the architect of the instruction, building on research-based methods, resulting in a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.  This very feeling is what brings many into the teaching profession.  We dream of doing great things in the classroom, of using our creative minds, and eventually achieving success with our ideas and unique teaching styles.

“Students get out of a lesson what a teacher puts into preparing for it,” Ms. Dorman says as she introduces the writing project she devised.

After attending a two-day literacy workshop in the summer of 2014 with members of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, I redesigned this unit to make it more student-centered and to increase the unit’s emphasis on writing. Using the elements of backward design, I examined what I truly wanted students to learn. Yes, I wanted them to learn about our country’s immigrants, both legal and illegal. My goals were for them to learn academic vocabulary, how to identify a main idea and supporting details, and how to write an informational paragraph. Upon reflecting upon student engagement of past students when teaching this unit, I felt that students were most passionate about the controversial parts of this unit. Particularly, past students debated during classroom discussions whether or not they believed illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in our country. I used this concept as the essential question in redesigning this unit and decided that every activity we did had to meet two criteria. First, I asked if the activity met one of the academic objectives of the unit: identifying main idea and details, lacquering and using new academic vocabulary, and writing informational pieces. I decided to add another criteria that was completely driven by my previous students’ interest: an argument essay asking if students supported illegal immigrants staying in our country, and why or why not they felt that way.  Then, I made sure any resource I used with my students helped them to gather evidence to support their answer to the essential question at the end of the unit.

Already we see that a great deal of careful consideration went into this project long before she put it into action.  Ideas had sprung from a conference Ms. Dorman attended.  She was inspired at the conference, the wheels in her teacher mind started spinning, and a great project began to come to life.  She developed vocabulary goals, crafted essential questions, carefully considered what would excite her students, and added criteria.  

I can’t help but imagine how this project would take off if it were happening right now, when immigration issues are in the headlines in such a controversial presidential election season.  But we get a nice picture of what kind of planning goes into a special teaching and learning experience like this.  

Lesson planning is not the same thing as lesson preparation, though.  Think of the planning as what happens well in advance of instruction.  This is the layout of the lesson, the real architecture.  There are standards to be considered, student engagement, specific learning outcomes, resources and a timeline.  Actual preparation is what happens when that planning is complete, and the resources have been identified.  It is the act of putting everything in place so that when students enter the classroom, the learning is as ready for them as they are ready to learn.  Preparation is everything from making sure there are enough copies of the reading material to assembling visual instruction aids on a wall of the classroom. It also includes things like positioning desks in an optimal layout, and making sure all instructional materials are in place for immediate access, including digital resources.  Preparation is the act of making sure the teaching and learning environment is perfect for the teaching and learning experience.  Then, what happens in the classroom becomes the main focus.

The unit included reading multiple-texts from varying viewpoints just as it always had, but I added other pieces to tie in more of the grade-level content area standards. Students read poetry, viewed documentaries, and read the young reader’s version of Enrique’s Journey. They used their laptops to research questions and answers about immigration in our country. They analyzed graphs, charts, and maps. Throughout the unit, students were responsible for collecting data that would help them write informational paragraphs and various checkpoints in the unit and ultimately to reach a decision and produce an argument essay answering the unit’s essential question about illegal immigration. The informational paragraph assignments and argument essays became a formative assessment tools for me to see if students could write about a main idea with supporting details and to find out if students were integrating academic vocabulary into their written work.

Ms. Dorman’s students were kept busy and there was something in this project for everyone.  Poetry, documentary, written narrative, even data analysis all happened before the actual writing occurred.  I have a hard time imagining how any student would not be eager to get writing after such a rich immersion into the topic of immigration.

By no means was Ms. Dorman’s planning and preparation work over once this project was under way:

Coinciding with the implementation of this unit, I worked collaboratively with the district’s technology integrationist after school one day a week during a technology lab for teachers to learn how to use Google Docs to monitor my students’ written work as they composed. As a result, my students and I maintained communication about their written work. They were provided with immediate feedback on their paragraphs and essays, resulting in a more complex piece of writing than they would have produced without this pervasive writing conference that occurred digitally.

What kind of time goes into putting together a special learning experience like this?  It is one thing to create a fun and meaningful unit that engages students, but Ms. Dorman also paid particular attention to learning standards and learning outcomes.  She was able to create an innovative and effective learning experience for her students.  And it took a tremendous amount of work on her part.

“I can’t count the hours that went into planning this unit because my planning was ongoing. It was constant,” Ms. Dorman adds.  

The unit was like a theme song that played in the background of my mind. I couldn’t get rid of the tune in my head. I needed a lot of time to contemplate on the day’s work in this unit. I spent evenings adjusting my plans and researching new resources to help reach my students and to make the controversy of illegal immigration come alive to them, and at the same time, looked for authentic ways to help address the content standards I wanted to cover. I guess you could say I was doing a juggling act to that theme song that was playing in my head.

I am sure Ms. Dorman would tell you that teaching amazing lessons like this is something of a collaborative effort.  It helps to have a great imagination and a passion for teaching and learning.  But an administration and professional support system that allows one the flexibility and freedom to produce magical lessons and units is a giant part of amazing learning experiences coming to fruition.  Ms. Dorman needed a canvass for her creative work, and she immersed herself into the artistic process that brought her vision to life in the classroom.  Sometimes artists become completely obsessed with their art, enough to hear it in one’s sleep and constantly feel the need to return to it night and day.   To me, Ms. Dorman’s story looks a lot like that kind of beautiful obsession.  There is something very special going on when a teacher wakes up in the middle of the night with an exciting idea to explore.  

Is it unreasonable to want all our teachers to be this excited about the lessons and units they teach?  Moreover, is it unreasonable for all teachers to be given the canvass, the administrative support, the training, and the professional support that yields such innovation and excellence?  Is there any single element lacking in today’s public education culture that makes this kind of teaching rare?  

We’ll start exploring this more in upcoming posts.  In the meantime, if you teach, send me your account of innovative and excellent lessons you have taught in the past.  What does it take, beyond passion and creativity, to produce fabulous, engaging lessons?  There are thousands of teachers who spent much of this daylight savings weekend putting hours and hours of time into their upcoming week’s lessons, tests, progress reports and other paperwork, in order to simply make it through the week.  They will tell you their 45 minute “prep period” in the middle of their day, teaching four, five or six classes back-to-back, is not sufficient.  When teachers teach lessons throughout their work day, there is no choice but to put in hours and hours of planning time outside that work day.  When it comes to making great things happen in the classroom, even more sacrifice is required.      

In the end, it is the outcome that brings us the greatest satisfaction.  This is why we do this work.  I want to thank Jennifer Dorman for sharing her story, and for her commitment to her students.  This is the kind of learning experience our children deserve.  Here are her final reflections:

I don’t know who was more engaged in the work involved in this unit, me or the students. The students were excited. They talked about the controversy of immigration with their parents. They argued with one another about immigration. They cried when we read stories and expressed frustration with the choice they would have to make at the end of the unit. They watched the documentary we watched in class outside of school. And today, they remember what they learned in this unit. They can still write an informational paragraph, they can argue their points in written form with evidence and reasoning, and they have generalized the unit’s academic vocabulary by making it part of their oral and written language. They are proud of what we accomplished in the unit, and they have kept it all with them like they would a precious commodity.

Great teaching should not be a rare occurrence.  It should not be unreasonable to expect great lessons and great teaching every day in our public schools.  But I ask this:  If we should expect such greatness in our schools every day, are we providing teachers the flexibility, freedom, resources, and the time they need during the regular work day to innovate and excel at the work they are trained to do?

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James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.