Things to Learn, Things to Teach

by Robert Nagle on 4/7/2014

in Instructional,Personal

I have reached a  critical juncture in my life: it’s now time to pass some teacher certifications.

I have always loved teaching and had been meaning to drift back to it midcareer. In my twenties I held out  hope that there was a path to teaching at universities.  My thinking at the time was that  fiction writers became professors by publishing a few recognized books and parlaying that into a full time teaching job. What caught me offguard in the early 90s was that 1)getting published was a lot harder than I expected it to be (and boy, I had already expected to be hard!) and 2)even the lower rungs of academia seemed too high to grab onto.  With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see both phenomenon pointed to unstoppable  long term trends.  There were way too many candidates with PhDs competing for fewer jobs, and writing was becoming so commercialized that it was quickly becoming standard wisdom that you’d have to publish a few books before you were noticed even by the literary/academic crowd. I could deal with that somewhat, but the bigger barrier seemed to be the glacial pace of the acceptance process. It took months just to have a small literary magazine send you a rejection slip, and I envisioned that it could take at least 10 years just to find a willing publisher.   That seemed way too long to wait.

At 30 I joined Peace Corps and taught for 3 years at universities in Albania and Ukraine (which I loved). When I returned stateside, I discovered that higher education offered no easy prospects — often adjuncts would work for years at low pay  without ever advancing up the career ladder. It seemed like insanity to continue down the  higher education path.  At the same time, I found my interests shifting to IT and technology. I did that for about ten years, but  realized in 2013 that the labor market had changed pretty drastically. First, there were fewer overall jobs for technical writers, and second the few remaining jobs  seemed to last for only a month or two.  Often they ended prematurely and unexpectedly or would involve horrendous commutes.  In Houston, I discovered that the lion’s share of technical writing jobs were in oil and gas, a field which is very hard for a ecologically-minded person to feel comfortable working for. I tried to stay consistent to my principles, but I kept returning to the same question: why should I give my labor to a company whose very business model depends on destabilizing the world’s climate for future generations?

Perhaps if I lived in another city, it might be possible to stay in technical writing, but in Houston the career opportunities are very limited to those wishing to avoid fossil fuel companies.

So teaching seems to be the best  career path for me, and one I have dearly missed.  I will still  pursue my ebook publishing opportunities fairly vigorously (and indeed, I am almost embarrassed at having delayed publishing my own writing as ebooks).  But suddenly I face a new set of challenges and professional realities. Suddenly I want to read certain books and focus on certain social issues.

I am now enrolled in an alternative certification program with TexasTeachers. For the record,  with my master’s degree in English, I am already “highly qualified” to teach high school English. For the next month, I will be studying for two content exams: Social Studies 7-12 (232) and Special Education EC-12 (161). If all goes well, I should be ready to interview for teaching jobs by the end of May.

The Social Studies test is a broad composite test which allows you to teach high school geography, world history, US history, government and economics. I would greatly enjoy teaching any of those subjects. As someone who is well-read and interested in politics,  I have a good background for this — although I should certainly read up on Texas history and world history and geography. Observations:

  • Testprep guides for these tests are ridiculously expensive and not particularly good. At the same time, there’s a lot of testprep material for student  AP placement exams which are cheap and easy to find.  Essentially the AP test prep guides cover the same material as the teaching guides — indeed, because you’ll be teaching these same  subjects, you might as well start with  the student learning guides!  (Alas, when a teacher teaches, he needs to know enough background about a subject to make it compelling for students,  but my immediate goal  is simply passing the exam).  So I’ll be relying on these study guides to pass the content tests. Indeed, one unusual purchase I’ll be making is for flashcards for US History and World History. To buy the flashcards specifically  for the teacher certifications costs about $50. To buy essentially the same flashcards for the student AP exams costs about $10.  (For the no-budget alternative, there are  online flashcard sites for free which have questions specific to the certification exams).
  • Looking over the ETS practice exams for the certifications, I am reminded of how much I dislike standardized tests in general.  At the same time I know how to prepare for them and take them.  Generally I scorn high on these exams,   but I remember how much pointless  hair-splitting is involved in many of the reading  questions. Sometimes this hair-splitting reveals interesting distinctions, but more often the hair-splitting involves using  intentionally vague or broad statements and asking the test-taker to figure out which generalization is the  least wrong. (Often the best strategy is simply to pick the answer which is the most cautious and least assertive even if it happens to sound vapid and devoid of any meaning).
  • Strangely, there is not yet a StackExchange on teaching subjects — although they already have an Academic exchange for college teachers (which is overly fixated on career issues like Why are salaries for adjuncts so low?  )This  is kind of bizarre because the pedagogical aspects of higher education is fairly straight forward whiles the ones for public school are broader, more diverse and more interesting.  The best forum at the moment seems to be A to Z Teacher Stuff. Also the TexasTeachers online study community seems to have lots of great information about studying for exams.

Although I certainly intend to devote a lot of time and energy to passing these exams, I recognize that there are certain deficiencies I wish to plug.  While teaching English as a foreign language  overseas and later taking two graduate classes in Instructional System Design,  I was really on top of teacher methodologies and learning theories. 10+ plus years later, I recognize that his knowledge might be a little stale and no longer relevant to the kinds of subjects I will be teaching.  (Plus I forget things easily!)  Also, I really need to revisit the basics of teaching — the why’s, the social aspects, the implications of being a teacher.

I fully expect that I’ll learn a lot of things by doing after being hired, but for the next few months at least, I’ll use this blog to record some interesting discoveries in the field of teaching (articles, books, videos, etc). I actually used to post a lot on educational topics in the early 200s on my blog,  so in a way, I’ll be returning to my roots.

Off the top of my head, here’s a list of  books on teaching  I have already  found memorable or interesting:

  • I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Alitt. Great book by a distinguished professor of history about his interactions with his students over a single semester for a single class.
  • What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. A concise summary of best practices for higher education.
  • Digital Game-Based Learning. By Mark Prensky. Ground-breaking book about using games for teaching. (I wrote a lengthy and well-received book review about it  for Slashdot.org).  (P.S. I see that he has written a sequel called Brain Gain: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom).
  • Visual Thinking by Rudulph Arnheim.  A philosophical discussion about the relationship between language and imagery.  I guess, I ought to include in the same breath Ed Tufte’s books on effectively using visual aids as well as Dan Roam’s books on doodling (Back of the Napkin, etc).
  • Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner.  (I see that Gardner has published quite a number of other books which I probably should pick up, with the latest being the App Generation).
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James  Paul Gee. (Actually I may need to reread this as well as his later volumes like Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning ).
  • Hoop Dreams (Movie!)  A controversial and complex documentary about basketball which provides  food for thought for educators and parents.
  • Bureaucracy by James Q. Wilson. A great tome which analyzes how the incentive structure and organizations for public agencies differ from comparable ones in the private sector.
  • Hackers and Painters. by Paul Graham. Ground-breaking book about DIY education.
  • Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins. (also other books on the same topic — funny how tenured professors tend to do this)

Books on my long-term reading list (feel free to suggest titles!). These are more about the fundamentals of educational and the broader social ramifications. Actually I would be happy to include some “bag of tricks” books if only I know of some!

  • Teachers as Intellectuals by Henry Giroux. (Actually Giroux has written a lot of stuff about critical pedagogy which I should get to).
  • Different Kind of Teacher by John Taylor Gatto. (also, the later Weapons of mass instruction : a school teacher’s journey through the dark world of compulsory schooling)
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere. This was the inspiration for Giroux, so I probably should read this one as well.
  • Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter. How metaphors and analogies  are used to convey ideas and aid in cognitive development.  I picked this very heavy book at a book sale. I ended up selling it online  for $20 because I needed the money, but read enough that I knew it was worth revisiting.
  • Probably something by Richard Hofstader. (I read the American Political Tradition already, probably should read Anti-Intellectualism in Public Life or Paranoid Style in American Politics).
  • People’s History of the US  by Howard Zinn. (On my reading list forever).
  • Some mainstream academic book about governance or political science.
  • A book on classroom flipping. Yes, I realize that this approach to teaching can be summarized in a single sentence, but maybe one book might cover implementation details better than I can figure out on my own.
  • Maybe some book about the new literacy/media literacy, etc.  (I’m trying to avoid reading the fashionable net authors — the Clay Shirkys and Jared Laniers — , but I’m sure there’s some practical book rattling out there by one of the  techno-utopians which is actually useful for teachers).
  • It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd. I’ve generally found that Boyd is pretty good at explaining things which are already obvious, but I remain hopeful (seriously!)   that her latest book has some research relevant to digital immigrant teachers.
  • Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I’ll try to look into at least one general  book about ludology at some point.

I’ve been rearranging some of my online classes to coincide with my teaching goals. Here are classes I have taken and will be taking (found mainly  from the Open Culture blog):

Finally, I wish to pose an unsettling question: Given that  students now have unprecedented access to video classes and documentaries  by some of the world’s leading minds, what role does the public school teacher still have to play?

Obviously, the teacher has to teach to state-mandated tests and give feedback and grades, but I think it goes even deeper than that. The teacher ought to help the student to learn that learning book stuff is still interesting and relevant. The teacher also ought to give the student confidence (through scaffolding and other methods) that understanding our shared  culture is not beyond a single  student’s comprehension. The teacher can  provide  hints for embarking on a self-directed exploration into learning. Finally the teacher needs to know how to moderate a group of young people in a way that focuses them on a single task in a social setting.

Finally, to reiterate what I said before, I’ll be blogging more regularly about educational topics for the next few months. Stay tuned!

Fun Update:  Turns out the World History class (video above) by Richard Bullitt is by the man who directed the writing of the nation’s leading world history textbook. The Earth and Its Peoples (in 2 volumes) In the first class, he deconstructs the very notion of World History, calling it purely a construct of the ETS AP World History exam…. Colleges almost never taught it, and the only reason he was doing so was to explain the politics behind the writing of the textbook! (The first 30 minutes of Class 1 is pretty wild!) To show off my book-buying prowess,  even though the list price for the 2 volume book is about $150, I obtained a low-cost edition of the 5th edition for a total cost of $5 (and that includes shipping!) Apparently this cheaper edition  has fewer graphics and colors, but it contains the full text for both volumes.

Two other reference books which I found for a song and a dance were:  Disunion : Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation (a collection of columns from a history blog hosted on NYT)  and Lone Star : A History of Texas and the Texans by T. R. Fehrenbach (which is apparently the only decent Texas history survey around).

Fun Update 2: I have been reading a ton of books about teaching and education — way beyond what is listed here. I have decided to review many of these books on a separate page. Stay tuned!

Fun Update 3. I have shifted gears, focused on teaching at the middle schools and therefore more on classroom management and teenage psychology.  So my reading priorities have changed somewhat…

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