Once upon a time there was a boy in college with no other direction than he liked to read and write. He took the classes that interested him within his potential major, but never had a clear vision of what he wanted to do as a career. He never had much input from his teachers and parents other than the advice that it’s important to go to college to set yourself up in life.
One day, he got a bad grade on an essay and went to go talk to his professor about why. He ended up having a conversation that changed his life.
“Hi Professor Wilson. Can I ask a question about my essay grade? I’ve always liked English and felt like I was an okay writer so I’m trying to understand where I may have come up short.”
“The problem,” Professor Wilson kindly explained, “was not the writing. You have some talent, for sure. But, you did not meet the requirements of what I was looking for.”
“Oh.” This was high praise coming from a college professor. “Well, can I revise this paper? I don’t need a re-grade, but I’d love some feedback on an essay that did align with your expectations.”
“You may resubmit the paper. I’d love to give you some further feedback. Is this what you want to do as a career? Be a writer?”
“Well, yes. My emphasis is on creative writing. I love Stephen King and hope to write a novel one day.” The boy started to reach for his essay back, but instead of handing it back, Professor Wilson continued the conversation.
“Okay, so what have you written so far?” Professor Wilson seemed genuinely interested and the boy was not prepared for the conversation to continue.
“Well, you know, I’ve got a few things I’ve written. The start of some things. A few poems. I’m hoping to do more now that I’m in the Creative Writing program.” When speaking it outloud, the boy was suddenly less confident of this decision.
“So you’ve written some ‘things’. Have you ever tried to get published?”
“No, I have not.” The boy felt embarrassed and a little angry. Why did this guy care that much?
And then Professor Wilson asked him the most important series of questions he had ever been asked:
“Well, how are you going to support yourself? To eat? How are you going to make money if you’ve never tried to sell your writing?”
The boy sat back as if he had just been slapped in the face. He was a free-spirit, a writer, a neo-beatnik...in his own mind. And here, this conversation had brought him face to face with reality in a way that he had never been reached before. He had walked in and half expected to get some vague answer and now he was in the middle of a conversation that was causing him a great deal of crisis in his early 20s life.
“I can see that you’ve thought this through,” Professor Wilson chuckled. “And I don’t mean to be sarcastic. Listen - you have a strong voice in your writing. It definitely stood out from the rest, even though you didn’t hit the mark with what I was looking for. But, if writing is a passion don’t major in your passion; major in something that is going to help you eat and pay rent. Your passion will continue to be there. It’s your passion after all, right?”
And then he offered the best piece of advice the boy had heard up to that point in his life:
“Have you thought about teaching? You said you liked Stephen King. Did you know he started out as an English teacher? Many writers do. It’s a way to support yourself and your passion. And I believe Texas State just started allowing Education as a minor. You could graduate with your teaching cert and write during the summers or anytime you like.”
What a revelation! The boy brightened and a little puzzle piece fell into place in his head. He already knew that the advisor had suggested that he pick a minor soon to avoid having to delay his graduation date. Up until that point, nothing seemed all that interesting. And here was this man, this person who, up until that day, probably didn’t even know his name, offering up some real advice.
“Uh, yeah! That sounds like a great idea. I hadn’t declared a minor yet, so I’ll look into that. Thanks!”
Professor Wilson just nodded and handed the boy’s paper back to him. “I’ll look for that revision by next class.”
The boy thanked the professor again and left. That night he did a little research into the teaching program and found that Professor Wilson was right. By chance, this was the first semester that Texas State was offering a minor in Elementary or Secondary Education that paired with certain education-tied degrees in the history of the school. He made an appointment to see his advisor.
So what happened to the boy? Well, the boy is me. And this conversation really did happen during office hours for my Literary Criticism class my junior year at Texas State. Fast forward 10 years later and I am still rocking it in public education. I have a Master’s degree when there was a time I didn't think I'd finish my bachelors. I have outlasted all but one of my friends who started out in teaching. And while I haven’t gotten published yet, it’s not my focus anymore. Being a better educator has bulldozed that young-and-famous mentality and filled it with something far more rewarding and enriching.
My point in telling that story (my educational testimony, if you will) is how important it is to get real with our students. To get to know them. To build real relationships. Or REALationships, as I like to think of them. Imagine the impact a short conversation could have on a student’s life, just as it had on mine? I honestly don’t know or want to know where I would be right now if not for that conversation. Professor Wilson didn’t need to take the extra 5 minutes to encourage me to think about teaching (it had honestly never crossed my mind before that). He didn’t need to take the extra time to have office hours. He didn’t even need to let me come in and ask about my grade when I clearly bombed the assignment. This was college. You don’t do, you fail. But he cared enough to have that conversation. If our responsibility as educators is lifting up our students to the next step in their lives, are we giving them our time and attention authentically?
So where does this leave us as educators? We gotta Get Real with students. We need to see their work. We need to let them speak. We need to be a part of their conversations. We need to view them by their potential and guide them. We need to challenge them to be creative, to synthesize. We need to build a culture of trust in our classroom. Most importantly, though, we need to infuse a philosophy of grit into our teaching and learn to be vulnerable with our students.
I spoke at length during Techapalooza about bringing the outside in, but I failed to point out that we are often our student’s biggest link inside and out to the real world. Many teachers are here as a second or even third profession. Here at Fort Sam our student population is nearly 100% military dependents. They have seen and experienced things in their lives that I would need five lives to experience. Why not ask them about these experiences and offer them a glimpse into your own journey?
The HOW - Building Relationships with students using tech tools
All of these ideas are anecdotal and fine for a summer reflection, so let’s take a moment to get very practical with some application. The first question I want you to ask yourself is: Is my work engaging? The second is: does my curriculum give opportunities for students to dive deeply or just skim the surface? The third is: Am I asking them to remember facts and figures or am I teaching conceptually and letting students make the connections?
These questions often have different answers based on where we are at in the semester. Closer to test time we “shut it down” and just focus on the test. I am guilty of doing this myself. Our world is being swallowed up into a meritocracy - the concept that our value is derived from how much and how well we do - and this is often the driving factor in standardized testing. Standardization doesn’t have to be stagnation. How can we challenge ourselves to grow relationships out of these experiences?
Getting real with our intentions to build relationships means designing our curriculum in a manner that speaks to students’ literacies. I was recently reading an article by Business Insider that polled 3,000 kids on their top aspirations for a career. Want to take a guess at what took the top spot? Being a famous YouTuber. You read that correctly. Not a doctor, a lawyer, even a professional athlete - a YouTuber. What does this tell me? It tells me that students want to share. If you have spent any amount of time on YouTube, you’ll realize that some of the top YouTubers do nothing more than share their daily experiences.
Thankfully, there are many different platforms to give students an opportunity to share their unique perspectives and more importantly, their learning. Flipgrid is one of the best at creating these types of spaces for students. Students record themselves talking or sharing about a topic and then post their vids on a Grid run by the teacher. They can then go and view responses and create video replies as well as share links and other multimedia. With the right parameters, this can be a highly effective tool and my kids loved sharing in this format. I would use Flipgrid to facilitate Book Talks or to create digital Gallery Walks once projects were completed. Some students even vlogged about the year and I would accept these in the place of handwritten journal entries or warm ups.
Another great way of engaging students and building relationships is with Podcasts. Podcasts have never been bigger and provide a unique platform for people to share their ideas. There are many different ways to produce a Podcast, but all you really need is a topic, a microphone, a computer, and a quiet place. This is a great culture builder because it allows students to capture their personality in a low pressure way. Being able to re-record, revise, and publish a podcast demonstrates the creative process as a process of revision. One of our 10th grade ELAR teachers, Terri Garatoni, presented over Podcasts at our tech conference and I’ve already had teachers talk about incorporating it in their classrooms. The student examples she shared were genuinely funny and creative. One ended up submitting theirs to the NPR student contest and it was played in part on NPR’s All Things Concerned. This was definitely a game-changing moment for her and her students. International Podcast day is September 30th, so this is a good excuse to give it a shot!
Building relationships takes time, but thankfully we have the entire school year to reach into our student’s lives and provide the types of unique support only a teacher can. I continue to challenge you, that as the semester gets long and the attention spans get short, to Get Real with your students. Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with having a genuine conversation with your students and letting them develop a strong voice in your classrooms. You never know - it may become the most important conversation they’ll ever have.