The Art of the Memoir

I recently visited Chesterfield’s Clover Hill High School, which has a PIA Award this year for a project called “Paths.” Students in the tenth through twelfth grade are working with a writer and a visual artist to interview local World War II veterans and their families to create literary and visual depictions of their stories.

The project team consists of Clover Hill creative writing teacher Barbara Bingham, history teacher James Triesler, and fine arts teacher Donna Stables. The visiting artists are painter Kendra Dawn Wadsworth and writer Erica Orloff. Kendra is a former student of Donna’s, which makes her a great role model for any young person who has a passionate interest but is not sure if it is okay to pursue that passion as an adult. Barbara has created a blog about the project and Erica has recently written a post for it. Barbara has also contributed a post to PIA’s blog, where she writes about the importance of learning from other teachers.

I sat in on a senior class that was working with Erica on the meaning, structure and making of memoir. This is a genre I feel very close to (perhaps because I like to talk about myself) and Erica laid out her information and insights in a compelling way. She asked the students to make a list of ten important events or transitional moments in their lives. Not just getting your driver’s license, for example, but what that meant to you. I joined in with the list-making and was surprised by what I came up with.

Erica then asked the students to do 15-20 minutes of free writing on one of the topics they had listed. With this approach, you try very hard not to edit yourself but to keep writing and let it take you where it will. I did this as well and once again was surprised that my pen seemed to be in charge. I appreciated that Erica and Barbara did not ask the students to share what they had written; their work was still private, something to think about and develop. Writing a little of their own memoir will help the Clover Hill students understand how personal experiences can have universal significance. And that is a lesson in itself.

Liz

Learning from Other Teachers

A guest post by Barbara L. Bingham, Chesterfield County Public Schools, Virginia

After three years of education courses and five years of teaching, I thought I knew a lot about teaching. I had participated in graduate-level classes and enthusiastically jumped into any staff development offered, but it was five years into my career as an educator that I learned my greatest lesson: other teachers know more than you do. I know this sounds contradictory for some experienced teachers and obvious for young teachers but it’s true for all of us.

That year I had been inspired to switch from general classroom teacher to exceptional educator for students with learning disabilities and I was tapped to collaborate in high school Algebra and Algebra 2. Never having taught math in high school before, I had to interact very closely with both of the teachers I worked with, two of the best teachers I have ever seen. That was when I learned my lesson: after watching them teach, I learned lessons and skills that I continue to use in an English class almost ten years later. It wasn’t that they had so many years more experience than me; it was that each of those teachers used skills and techniques that I hadn’t seen before. Every teacher has something they have developed that works really, really well. If we could just teach each other these things, all of us would become stronger, better and more inspired.

The best training a teacher can have is found in the classroom of another teacher, teachers of the same subject and of different subjects. It is this practice which sets the standard for student teaching. If you want to learn how to teach, then you need to work with someone who does. Unfortunately, in our busy careers as educators, we become too hyper-focused on our classes and distracted by red tape or requirements. If I told you there was staff development that was guaranteed to reach all of your teachers, which would bring improvement to every classroom and would raise camaraderie between all teachers across curricula, every school would pounce on it, particularly when they found out the cost was minimal. So why don’t we do it more? If the consensus is that inexperienced teachers can learn from experienced teachers, why don’t we make the leap to believe experienced teachers can learn from other experienced teachers?

Here’s what I propose: this year, make a commitment to learn at least one skill from another classroom. Schedule a time during your planning time to sit in on another classroom and ask someone you admire to share their skills with you. If you can, go in a few times and watch, learn. You will be thankful you did and, at the same time, you will learn to admire your colleagues and their skills anew. Both of you will be grateful you did.