Christina Keller '14 is a Sociology/Anthropology and Educational Studies special major who is also completing the requirements for elementary teacher certification. Christina wrote this reflective essay at the end of her student teaching experience at the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School in fall 2013. In the essay, she examines the intersection between her academic work at Swarthmore and her experiences in the field.
I think one of the biggest dilemmas I face in becoming a teacher and trying to become a teacher is the one of praxis, of trying to unite theory and practice in a way that is beneficial to students and myself as a teacher. As someone who has spent the past year of college working on her practice as an educator, assistant teaching at the Cloud Forest School (CEC) in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and student teaching at the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School (PMCS) in Philadelphia, PA, and the two and a half years beforehand studying educational theory, I think I've found at a relatively young age how little of practice in schools is informed by theory and how little of theory in higher education institutions is fully cognizant of the burdens of practice.
Prior to this year of practice, I thought I had my praxis relatively figured out. I had developed a fairly articulate theory of instruction while taking Education Psychology, one that reflected the work of Eccles et al. (1993) and the need to create an environment that is developmentally appropriate, engaging, and challenging to students. I incorporated the work of Nolen (2007) to create a theory of practice that focused strongly on the needs and benefits of writing in an elementary classroom. I built on the research of Yamuchi et al. (2005) and the need for creating culturally-relevant projects in classrooms that involve the community and its needs. I looked at Mark Springer's (2006) work in Soundings and strived to create a pedagogy that would allow students to have a voice and a say in their own learning. I especially thought about Dweck (2000) and the need to constantly reinforce that intelligence is mastery, not performance-based, something that I myself have often struggled to believe.
Moreover, I took Urban Education the same time I took Education Psychology and I incorporated many of the readings and theories from that class into my theory of instruction, since my main aim since my freshman fall has been to teach in an urban setting. Particulary, I looked at Martin Haberman's (1994) article "The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching" and tried to make sure my practices were as reflective of good teaching as possible, and not just focused on having students understand the basics. I thought about discipline quite a bit and the fact that urban schools often focus on discipline first, content second (Noguera, 2003). While not explicit in the paper I wrote at the time, I made the connection between Yamuchi et al. and Moll et al. (2005) and the need to not only work within students' communities, but also build on the existing knowledge that stems from their community. It was particulary this semester, my fall sophomore year, where I saw all of these various theories I had read about fitting neatly together in my head to create a pedagogy that, I thought at least, would work well for students.
Other classes contributed as well to my thinking about how I would go into this year of practice. I consistently thought about my reading from Special Education in terms of disability being a social construction. I thought about how to make sure I saw all of my students, regardless of their learning challenges, as smart, gifted, and abled individuals. I thought about how I would best give extra help to certain students without making them feel alienated or different than the other students in the room. I thought as well about the readings and theories from Teaching Diverse Young Learners and my desire to create read aloud spaces where students could fully express themselves, and math lessons that would be conceptually, rather than procedurally, based.
Add all of this processing and thinking about theory taught at Swarthmore to the fact that I am also interested in Montessori education. Having read Angeline Stoll Lillard's (2008) book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius winter my sophomore year and externed in a Montessori classroom that January, I fell in love with the order and structure of Montessori classrooms and the way that many of the practices within them are supported by the same educational theories and findings that I had just read about in Education Psychology. I saw my own professor's name cited numerous times as being support for the environment of interest and engagement that a Montessori curriculum can create. Despite that it is a hundred year old pedagogy that has changed little over the course of the past century, and despite the fact that it is often considered a "fringe" or "alternative" form of teaching in the United States, and that I had never read about it in any Swarthmore classes, I really loved Montessori education. I loved the style of teaching and interacting with students, and the idea of giving students choice and independence over their learning in a controlled, thoughtful environment. I also loved the emphasis on peace education and the global perspective that Montessori took. There is something awe-inspiring about a pedagogy that is not just native to one country, but found all throughout the world, in more or less the same form. It shows that many aspects of learning and thinking truly are universal and gives children around the world a shared experience, despite the vast distances and differences in culture. The Great Lessons that Montessori created also struck me. The idea that students can learn about the Big Bang as early as six years old and have that as a reference point for all the rest of their learning was something I had never encountered before. It showed me that children can learn more than we think they can, and about more complex material than we think we can, so long as we tailor it to their developmental level and make it more impressionistic than detailed and exact.
Given the six education courses I took prior to this calendar year and my own reading on Montessori education, I came into both of my classroom settings well grounded in theory. However, what I soon found, and I knew this somewhat before coming in, especially from my own school experiences, is that the majority of practice in schools is not really tied back to theory. There is a lack of discussion about theory in actual schools that I found to be just as frustrating as the lack of discussion about practice in many of my Swarthmore classes. I felt a strong disconnect between all that I had learned the two and a half years prior and the way that schools are actually run. Neither of the schools I taught in were "bad" per se. Neither of them were trying to do wrong by children. Both wanted their students to grow up to succeed and do well in life.
However, neither institution had an ongoing discourse about praxis, about how to best make various educational theories and practices fit well together. Especially in my time at PMCS, I found many curricular choices being made because they seemed to be the lastest and greatest development, or because they supported students' performance on standardized testing. From AIMSWeb® testing to StudyIsland® Benchmarks to Fundations® (Wilson Phonics), I found myself in a sea of trademarked terms and practices that are meant to prepare students for the PSSAs. My experience was not as test-driven or focused or corporate as it might have been at other urban charter schools. Afterall, PMCS is Montessori-based, and there was a fair amount of time in the day spent using materials like the Stamp Game, Bead Chains, and Three Part Cards. However, I did not see or experience any ongoing discussions at the school about how to add more community-based or culturally-relevant forms of learning, despite the support of research for those forms of learning, or how to make sure that students have a mastery rather than performance-based form of intelligence. I did not find this either at the CEC. I found there to be numerous conversations about rules at recess, rules in the lunchroom, how to handle particular students, how to make sure students' IEPs were up to code, etc. I found policies and procedures to be taking precidence over theories and research-based pedagogy.
In my own teaching, I tried my best to incorporate the two. I taught a unit where my students wrote letters to experts about questions they wondered about, similar to what students do in the Soundings classroom. Many of them have received replies back. I created a persuasive writing unit and had conversations with my students about the community they live in. We talked about both the beauty and ugliness within it and how to persuade others to make the ugliness more beautiful. We talked about people experiencing homelessness and the need to treat all people with respect because that is part of the process of creating peace. I consistently reminded my students that I wanted them to work hard because I wanted them to get smarter, and that the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. I taught a few of Montessori's lessons, about the formation of galaxies, the fundamental needs of humans, and foundations of geometry (points, lines, and rays). I tried my best to have read alouds be a time when students could share their thoughts, and where I would listen to everything they had to say. I tried my best to create math lessons that were conceptually, rather than procedurally based, that used manipulatives to show why something is the way it is. Most of all, I tried to give my students the opportunity to write as much as possible and share what they wrote. In Costa Rica, I had my students write and share poetry (the first poems they had ever written!). In Philadelphia, I gave my students' journal prompt after journal prompt, including one after they had been too noisy during their worktime and I made them sit down and write, that I then gave them the opportunity to write about, share, and discuss. I tried to amplify my students' voices as much as I could, and make it so it wasn't just my own that was being heard, a concept that stems all the way back to my reading of Dewey in Intro to Education.
I am realizing, though, that my role in the education system is small and that the forces dividing theory and practice are stronger than I'll ever be able to tackle. At least at the moment, education policy is and will continue to be influenced by raw test scores and this idea that there's an "achievement gap." Education will keep being influenced by money and funding, and the practices that get you those, rather than by solid educational theory. Moreover, teachers will keep being controlled and regulated, and not seen as real professionals, so long as the profession is dominated by women, and sexism exists. There are forces beyond measure that keep practice from truly reflecting good theory. However, this does not mean I do not want to be a teacher anymore. Rather it makes me want to be a teacher even more. I want to bridge the gap between theory and practice in my work. I want to be a voice in faculty meetings that asks why we are doing things a certain way and wonders how new practices best fit with current research. I want to speak up for teachers, and help create spaces where other teachers can speak up for themselves in terms of education policy. Just as importantly, I want to bring more practice into theory. I want to give teachers more of a say and voice in what is published in prominent education journals. I want to conduct my own research rather than just being the subject of research. I want to show just how hard teaching is and how often times what is theorized is incredibly hard to put into practice. Essentially, I want to keep one foot grounded in academia and one foot grounded in the real world, so that hopefully the dilemma between theory and practice becomes just a little bit less profound.
Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development (pp. 1-28). Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.
Eccles, et al. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents' experience in schools and in families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90-101.
Haberman, M. (1994). The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, In J. Kretovics (Ed.), Transforming Urban Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Pp. 305-314.
Lillard, A. S. (2008). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford University Press.
Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., and González, N (2005). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms. In N. González, L. C. Moll, and C. Amanti (Eds.), Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Pp. 71-87.
Noguera, P. (2003). City Schools and the American Dream. New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 3 & 4.
Nolen, S. B. (2007). The role of literate communities in the development of children's interest in writing. In S. Hidi and P. Boscolo (Eds.), Writing and motivation (pp -255). New York: Elsevier.
Springer, M. (2006). Soundings. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Yamuchi, L. A., Wyatt, T. T. R., & Carroll, J. H. (2005). Enacting the five standards for effective pedagogy in a culturally relevant high school program. In A. E. Maynard and M. I. Martini (Eds.), Learning in cultural contexts: Family, peers, and school (pp. 227-245). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.