Teacher Feature with Mark Holt-Shannon on The Common Core: Getting There Quickly

In an effort to expand the conversation here on this blog,  I would like to introduce “Teacher Feature”, a place where I will post the reflections, thoughts, meanderings, writings and ideas of teachers.  In my work I have the privilege of working with so many amazing talented professionals.  I get the best of the best.  Think about it.  They take their own precious time during and at the end of the day to meet with me.  They attend classes after school to read, write and discuss their own professional development.  They are who you want teaching your child.

This week I feature Mark Holt-Shannon, an 8th grade teacher from Dover Middle School in Dover New Hampshire. When I first walked into Mark’s classroom several years ago there was a palpable energy that was inviting and invigorating.    He instructed the kids to get their “nets” (writer’s notebooks where you “catch” ideas) and do some writing about what they had just discussed.  There were all the elements of a Writer’s Workshop up and running like a fine tuned machine.  And  I wanted to stay, be a student and experience what those kids were experiencing.

When I first sat down with Mark I was amazed at just how hard he was on himself as a teacher, constantly questioning and wondering what he could or should be doing better. (A hallmark of brilliance in my book!)   There was a sense of something that was missing for him in his teaching as he wondered, was he doing all that he could?  He talked about feeling disorganized because he never had his entire week planned out or even months for that matter as others around him did.  Sure, he had a sense of the direction he was headed in, but he talked about how that plan changed every day based on the needs, demands and understandings of his students.  In short, he is a reflective, responsive and motivating teacher of reading and writing.  The kids LOVE him!

Today he talks about how his walks to and from school allow him the time to plan in his head how to pick up where he left off the day before, but again there is a sense that he is doing something “not quite right”.  In this piece Mark comments on the current culture in education and what it feels like to be teaching every day with so much other noise going on around him at more than lightning speed with the word “rigor” staring teachers in the face of every turn.  You will also see that he himself is a talented writer who writes and enjoys what words can do on the page.

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Mark conferring with student at UNH Writer’s Academy 2013

Common Core: getting there quickly  

By Mark Holt-Shannon

How often on this trip down the road of guiding students toward becoming better thinkers and perceivers and feelers and citizens, do we get to, or think to, stop and look closely at the map?  How often do we pull over in the dark, especially before we get to that point (a crossroads, an exit sign offering choices) where we have to make a decision about the best direction to take?  Where we have to push on the overhead light and consider the options, the routes?  Scenic or quick?  Doesn’t it feel, too often and instead, like we’re just trusting the GPS?  She’s telling us to go a particular way, maybe we agree, maybe we don’t.  Maybe her directions seem logical, maybe they don’t.  But we look at our watches and do the timetable math and just do what she says, hoping for the best.  Gotta be there by morning.  Gotta be there by morning.  Why?  Because come morning, we’re dropping them at the bus station so they can start their journey to the train station.

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My problem is that I like to look at the map, put my finger on where I am, put my finger on where I am supposed to go, and look in between to see what is there that would be cool to see.  What historical markers, what natural or physical beauty, what friends do I know, what cultural experiences, food, music, language, ethnicities exist along the way that we can come in contact with?  No, if I am heading north, I don’t want to spend too much time traveling south; though I may need to occasionally.  I can agree that we need to keep moving in an agreed upon direction.  There is merit and necessity in all of us meeting at a similar place.  Why?  Shit, good question.  I don’t want to sound like too much of a hippie here.  Why?  So that we can embrace each other.  Talk about what we’ve seen and how it affected us.  Learn from one another.  Discover places we’d like to travel back to some day.  Decide maybe if we’re ready to move on, to get on the bus—if that’s what we’re doing.

Rigor is not about having to hold your pee and stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened and not complain and have no say in the direction.  Is it?  Rigor is getting out of the car.  Not just looking at the world through the window and checking it off the list of markers we’ve passed.  Rigor is exposure and reflection.  “Look at this, what do you think?  How does it compare or contrast to something else we saw?”  Rigor is “No, you can’t stay in the car, you have to get out and step in it, speak the language, consider the beauty, consider the poverty, consider your place in it.  Try the food, listen to the music, shake the hands of the people.  Will you ever come back here?  Why?  Speak, write, listen, feel, love, read.  No, you cannot sleep the entire trip.  You have to find a way to be affected by what you are seeing and you have to make that affectation known.”  Rigor.

Why are listening to the GPS?  She wants me to go the fastest most efficient way.  But if I do that, what will I have brought with me?  What experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will I show up with?

Seriously, what “experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will” our kids show up with if we continue on this path of the GPS and don’t consider the journey of each child?

Thank you Mark!

2 thoughts on “Teacher Feature with Mark Holt-Shannon on The Common Core: Getting There Quickly

  1. Great thoughts Mark! I liked your definition of rigor: Rigor is getting out of the car. Not just looking at the world through the window and checking it off the list of markers we’ve passed. Rigor is exposure and reflection. Too often in education, I feel like I am checking off items on a list.

  2. Tomasen,
    This so made me cry and smile at the same time. It was beautiful how you were able to reflect and write about something that most people fear and some are not able to come to terms with. I also loved Mark’s piece.

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