Not What I Imagined
The February before I began my first year teaching, I was asked to teach a series of lessons in Mrs. Smith’s seventh-grade classroom. The first lesson I taught focused on literary devices, and although Mrs. Smith thought it had gone smoothly, I didn’t feel the same. Sure, some of the students recognized personification when we looked at examples, and some students even wrote creative, insightful examples of their own. But, I felt uncomfortable with how much pressure I felt to make sure the students knew specific definitions and examples of these literary devices for an upcoming department-wide assessment.
Despite the fact these weren’t officially my students, I believed I still needed to be motivated by their unique perspectives, voices, and needs rather than by the fear that they wouldn’t know the difference between personification and similes on the multiple-choice portion of the test. I planned for a more dialogical lesson in the hopes that the next lesson would be more fulfilling for both the students and me.
So here I was, a week later. I was excited to teach again, and although Mrs. Smith’s objective for the lesson required students to compare and contrast two different accounts of the same event (which would also be on the department-wide assessment), I was hoping to frame it in a more personal and relevant way. Essentially, my lesson outline looked like this: compare two accounts of the same event from a historical fiction novel they were reading, then use written and verbal means to discuss how we personally tell stories, why we tell them the way we do, and what effect those stories have on others.
I imagined a discussion about how we exaggerate stories to impress others or how we leave out certain details in order to avoid judgement (seventh graders’ lives are already full of examples of storytelling!), and I imagined making real world connections like media bias and its influence on society. I felt a little deflated when Mrs. Smith reviewed my lesson plan the day before and asked that I include a compare and contrast worksheet for the two accounts of the event from the novel, but I thought that the discussions and connections I had imagined would remain the focus of the lesson.
Class began with a rocky start as Mrs. Smith, after reviewing my lesson plan yet again, asked me logistical questions about how I would form the students into groups, advised me that I should require a concluding paragraph with a specific sentence count about the similarities and differences between the two accounts, and offered various tools to enhance my teaching that I hadn’t been planning on using.
I quickly processed her list of commands, which had been couched as suggestions, and agreed that these could be effective if I put them into practice. However, I felt thrown off balance by her frantic tone and the pressure to implement all of these elements on the spot. I proceeded and tried to gain my composure as the lesson went on, but I felt even less sure of myself when she reprimanded the class for being noisy and rude despite my specific instructions to begin working as soon as they got into groups.
To top it all off, because I didn’t know how to navigate the technology she had given me, I had placed the iPad aside, only to forget about it until I heard the students’ audible gasps as I accidentally knocked it off of the podium. It was clear that the focus was now on my incompetence in Mrs. Smith’s classroom, not the dialogical lesson I had tried to plan for.
I felt defeated.
Even still, I was shocked when Mrs. Smith interjected and told me she would finish the lesson on her own. I watched from the back of the room as she transitioned the small group work back to a whole class presentation and asked the students to report surface-level lists of the specific similarities and differences between the novel and the non-fiction text. This was obviously not the lesson I had planned for.
As I talked with Mrs. Smith after class and continued to interact with her over the next few months, I came to the realization that our expectations were different not only for that specific lesson, but for teaching and learning in general. She had expected lessons broken down into steps and skills easily transferable to the department-wide assessment, as well as a classroom environment equally structured and compartmentalized.
I envisioned a classroom where I listened to students as I moved around the classroom, where students engaged in small and large group discussions about not-so-easy-to-answer questions that would lead to personal and collective meaning-making, rather than a classroom of passive students that were waiting on me to confirm the “right” answer. I expected my type of classroom to seem chaotic and noisy at times, and I knew not every lesson would probably go as planned or be as effective as I had hoped. However, I wanted to at least try. Instead, my hopes seemed to be exactly that: hopes.
What did I know? As a pre-service teacher, how did I know that a dialogical approach would even work in the classroom? And even more daunting in my mind, how did I know that I was capable of facilitating a dialogical classroom? Mrs. Smith seemed to have a physical command over her classroom. In comparison, it felt like all I had were idealistic, even lofty, lesson plans.
My impending first year of teaching, and the department-wide assessments I knew would come with it, looked like a discouraging box that needed to try and fit into. I believed that a dialogical classroom could help me break outside of that boxed-in mentality, and most importantly create an effective environment for students to learn in, but I wondered just how much work and talent it would require. Would I even be capable of it?