I am a big fan of those educators who have learned that you can use these tools, together with critical thinking, as a means of empowering students to take on their own learning. ~ Howard Rheingold

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

A lot has changed in K-12 education over the last five years: new state standards, new standardized tests, new requirements on teacher evaluations, and more integration of technology. A major challenge to discussing these changes is that everyone seems to have an opinion about what needs to happen in order to improve K-12 education. These well-meaning opinions come from parents, policy makers, educators, students, etc., but, more often than not, they miss the point.

I am honored to teach high school English. As an English teacher, my classes offer students an opportunity to engage big ideas and essential questions that they may not encounter in other courses. For example, within the discipline of English Studies, because of the texts that we read and write, I have a natural opportunity to tackle with students John Dewey’s points about “the democratic ideal.” Dewey emphasizes that the democratic ideal — arguably the point of education — is for a student to “refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own,” and by doing so, dismantle “barriers of class, race,” etc. It is important that this tenet of critical pedagogy stays at the forefront for teachers, but unfortunately the time needed to reflect on such things is often pushed aside for what in the moment seems more pressing, like grading papers and responding to parent emails.

Yet, If K-12 teachers make a decision to approach teaching from a perspective of critical pedagogy, as a heuristic to working out their teaching philosophy, Dewey’s words will remain a powerful influence amidst the daily grind of teaching. Critical pedagogy necessarily introduces students to nuance and complicates dichotomous thinking. In addition, with access to digital technologies that can find and curate different perspectives at the click of a button, it is especially important for students to learn to critically engage multiple points of view. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where the exchange of ideas is productive. I would argue that this is where seeing teaching as an art is crucial. This is messy work…the work of effective critical pedagogues.

However, a reality of K-12 education is that teachers are bound by state standards. It comes with the territory that we should take them seriously so that students, when the standards are implemented well, have access to a high quality education anywhere they go. Again, this is messy work, requiring the work of creative pedagogues, but I believe that we must work within the current realities of our educational frameworks and strive to create authentic opportunities for learning.

For example, over the last five years most opportunities for professional development and school improvement have been about one of two things: first, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) — as well as standardized tests that accompany them — and second, the pervasive integration of technology as the panacea for improving education — which often raises questions about what makes teachers effective. Meetings that used to consist of veteran teachers talking about books and a powerful lesson where things just clicked are now data-driven, with teachers analyzing the percentage of students who performed well on a particular standard from a recent school-wide assessment. Instead of discussing the topic of redemption in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, teachers explore the outcomes of reading the novel: what students will create by the end of the reading and the technologies they will use to successfully complete the assignment. Of course, these discussions are important when the timing and context is right, but too often we forget to ask ourselves the tough questions, the kinds of questions that force us to consider why we teach the books we teach and why we believe these points should stick with students long after they’ve left our course.

Curricula are being developed around these standards, teachers are expected to integrate digital technologies into their classes, and teachers are partially evaluated on how well their students perform on computer-based standardized tests that measure growth on specific standards from year to year.

These shifts can be intimidating and are often overwhelming, especially when working within a context that isn’t always ideal. For example, I do not particularly like the way the standards came to be, and there are many controversies surrounding them, but at the end of the day I have 150 students who will be held accountable to these standards. I have decided as an educator, as a critical pedagogue, to find creative ways for students to fulfill the standards without sacrificing my teaching philosophy. In fact, I notice in the standards many opportunities for students to take the lead in their learning, especially as it relates to forming arguments, a foundational skill they will need in college. Regarding standards, Gerald Graff and Mike Schmoker explain that students must weigh the “value” of information “and use it to resolve conflicting opinions, offer solutions, and propose reasonable recommendations. The same could be said for the demands of citizenship and the modern workplace.” In other words, by choosing to emphasize argument in my classes, students learn to critically engage information as they create their own texts, a major step for them in developing autonomy as learners.

Sean Michael Morris and Chris Friend explain that

“we want students to have control over their learning. But because they’re in school, an institution built around hierarchy, at most they can have the illusion of control within the limits set by the instructor or the institution. This is the fly in the ointment of critical pedagogy. Teachers must teach students to think for themselves, to feel empowered, and to cultivate their own learning processes. And yet, to teach that is to assert the educator’s own authority.”

In order to be effectively subversive when working within regulated educational frameworks, it is important to not get lost in the red tape of standards and evaluation, but instead to allow the principles of critical pedagogy to drive instruction, as in the Graff and Schmoker example above. It is so easy to only focus on the what instead of the why: Does this lesson cover a writing or language standard that will help me collect data to prove student growth on my evaluation? How many points should this assignment be worth? How am I assessing this skill? Instead, we should free ourselves up to consider the possibility, in response to the previous questions, that an activity may focus on multiple standards that aren’t mutually exclusive and that everything we ask students to do doesn’t need to go in the gradebook for points or even be assessed. These answers come from taking the time to consider why, instead of just what. From remembering to zoom out and look at the big picture.

This is the work of the critical pedagogue.

My Praxis: How I Make This Work

We must engage in recursive reflection, finding the opportune times for traditional instruction, like lecturing, and, as Pete Rorabaugh argues, “the participatory knowledge making practices of Web 2.0.” Rorabaugh’s emphasis on “participatory knowledge making” assumes students are considering the beliefs and actions of others, and his emphasis on “Web 2.0” rightly situates learning in a context of students needing to understand technology. Being transparent with students about why they’re doing what they’re doing is crucial and not only encourages community but also decentralizes the teacher a bit, which is always a noble and necessary pursuit in a course concerned with student learning.

The dual-credit freshman writing classes that I teach illustrate this point. I have 85 rhetoric students (three sections), who, for the first semester, write a paper every two weeks. For example, if I spent five minutes giving feedback on each student’s paper, that would take 425 minutes (or just over seven hours). This example doesn’t include the two sections of freshman English that I get to teach, another 60 students. Not only is a student-centered class the best pedagogical approach, but it is necessary for the teacher to survive. Also, for teachers concerned that they do not have the time for the Common Core’s emphasis on increasing the amount of writing students do, a student-centered class is a must. I’ve written elsewhere about how I’ve had success at creating collaborative response groups, where students — yes, through guidance and the occasional lecture — learn to take on the role of an audience in the class, offering each other feedback and support during the writing process. I am also a member of the audience. No longer the sole voice in the room.

I’ve found that an effective approach to my teaching is to stop imagining that there is a bulleted list of content that I must get through or list of technology tools students should use and to instead do my best to relinquish control to the students. This is not easy. In fact, teachers must deliberately make the pedagogical shift to relinquish control in their instruction and course design. As the teacher, I have goals that students will meet by the end of the course, but there is always room for student choice and influence in deciding how we will get there, often times exceeding my original goals. Specifically, I try to maintain an awareness of what Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh, and Jesse Stommel explain in “Beyond Rigor”: “We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.” I intentionally make sure what students are asked to do is rigorous and engaging, fulfilling the requirements of the CCSS and remaining true to my teaching philosophy, and, by doing this, technology integration becomes an afterthought, to be figured out later in the process.

For example, one of my students’ favorite assignments is the composition remix. The purpose of the assignment is for students to revisit a more traditional piece of writing from earlier in the semester, like a textual analysis or literacy narrative, and mold that text into a new creation, targeting a new audience and reconceiving the text in a new genre. In order to do this, students should carefully consider the rhetorical situation and the potential they have to make their stance from the original piece even clearer to a different audience, while having access to all that our technology resources offer. This requires students to know their audience’s perspective. Students repurpose the meaning of the other texts they choose to incorporate into the remix (audio, photos, video, clippings, quotes, lines from their previous essays, etc.) as a way to make them contribute to the remix’s meaning, not their original meaning.

I implemented this assignment after reading Jim Ridolfo and Danielle DeVoss’ “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery”. Ridolfo and DeVoss explain that “rhetorical velocity is the strategic theorizing for how a text might be recomposed (and why it might be recomposed) by third parties, and how this recomposing may be useful or not to the short- or long-term rhetorical objectives of the rhetorician.” I am intrigued by the level of critical thinking that goes into recomposing a text, so I decided to have students recompose through remixing one of the texts they wrote earlier in the year. Granted, this is different than Ridolfo and DeVoss’ emphasis on “third parties,” but I believe it encourages students to continue developing the habits of mind that are necessary for them to successfully navigate new rhetorical situations. Ultimately, this is a way for students to consider other points of view and how best to engage in conversation through the texts they create. For example, one student decided to remix her literacy narrative about the social literacy involved in coming out as a lesbian to her mom. She remixed the essay into a spoken word poem and posted it to YouTube, where it currently has over 900 views.

I bring up the remix assignment to highlight an opportunity for teachers. We can be on the forefront of engaging students in developing digital literacies. This is why I now include an option for students to complete a multimodal research paper at the end of the year. I explain that in lieu of submitting a word-processed paper as the medium for the final research paper, students have the option to submit a short documentary film, audio essay, or some other creative expression that they come up with. For example, they may want to think about how they could incorporate a skill or passion into how they present their research to an audience. Art. HTML. Repurposing technologies like Storify or Vine. It is necessary to note that the multimodal option includes all of the process components of the paper option: brainstorming, planning, research, annotated bibliography, notes from sources, proposal, etc. At the point in the year when the research paper is assigned, because of scaffolded instruction throughout the year, students are prepared to make decisions for how they are going to compose.

Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner delivered a call to action with their 2013 article, “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait.” We must heed this call. According to Hicks and Turner, speaking to English teachers, but I think their ideas apply across disciplines, “Digital literacy is no longer a luxury, and we simply cannot wait to build the capacity in our students and colleagues, as well as ourselves” (64). We must design our courses to champion “digital literacy, not just technology, in a way that reconceptualizes our discipline” (61) so that our students — and us as a result of practicing this shift — experience the growing benefits of digital literacy. I agree with Hicks and Turner that “we need to have the courage to take on new roles as English teachers” (64) and “dump the dittos, throw out the workbooks, and remix our teaching for a digital age” (61).

This shift must occur in our classes. Especially now, with the implementation of the CCSS calling for students to learn to approach technology with a critical eye, students must learn to negotiate “the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums” so that they “select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (7). That is, we should approach digital technologies the same way we should approach analog technologies. Some teachers are unapologetically critical of the former, skeptical of integrating technology and continue to champion the status quo. However, as Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel question in their article, “Is it Okay to be a Luddite?”, “Can we approach new digital technologies at once with wonder and also dismay — with a reflective curiosity that pushes buttons unabashed but not without first brazenly dissecting them?” I believe having the agency in a classroom to ask such a question is crucial when considering digital literacy.

Digital literacy is not just about learning how to use cool tools. Instead, students must dissect technologies, learning to read for and interpret their uses (even the uses that are not their advertised function). This kind of deep thinking about technology, just as it is with analog, will lead to students making intentional choices about their purpose for writing and how to design a text that effectively communicates to an intended audience.

When students approach design with an understanding of their purpose, context, and audience, they are better prepared to choose appropriate modes of communication. Kristin L. Arola, Cheryl Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard, authors of “Multimodality as a Frame for Individual and Institutional Change”, claim that “while multimedia technologies tend to make multimodality more apparent…multimodal does not necessarily mean digital.” For example, my district’s capstone assessment for World Affairs (a freshman social studies course) asks students to research a contemporary world issue, make sense of their research, write an annotated bibliography, an argumentative research paper, and then, using their paper, design either a multimodal presentation using presentation software or trifold board to be presented to an authentic audience of parents, teachers, administrators, local businesspeople, and government officials. This assignment necessitates that students make deliberate decisions throughout the composition process about when to use technology, what technologies to use, and how all of this work contributes to their rhetorical situation.

Arola, Ball, and Sheppard go on to ask, do we

“want just writers who can put words on a page in a standard format? Or do [we] want designers, for whom the act of communication is always rhetorical and can take advantage of whatever mode best suits the audience, purpose, context, and genre?”

Many districts have begun implementing 1:1 programs and writing new curricula that is aligned to the CCSS. Instead of being weighed down by discussions of teacher effectiveness, let’s expose students to what we know is effective: helping them discover their learning process and making intentional choices during their writing/design process. If we do this, I’m confident questions about teacher effectiveness will answer themselves.