What Matters in the End? Identity

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June 15, 2017

This is the end.

And, yet, it’s only the beginning! We celebrate the end of our formal years of schooling with a ceremony that is synonymous with beginnings, and I have come to the end, or rather, the commencement of having served as 2016-2017 Michigan Teacher of the Year. After 15 school visits, 27 speeches or presentations given, 57 professional learning opportunities that I either facilitated or participated in, more than 90 meetings with fellow educators or others interested in education throughout the state and across the country, as well as learning from students about how they learn best through the National Board Certification process, I’ve probably learned as much in the past 12 months as I have in the past 12 years! I now reflect on the learning experiences that have helped me grow and think about how I will apply and continue to share what I’ve learned as I begin the next chapter on my journey as a Proud Michigan Educator.

Our lives are a compilation of stories, and we’re usually somewhere in the middle of a chapter trying to overcome a barrier (like how to briefly capture the past year in a blog post). It’s when we pause and notice the moments that have become turning points for us, when we learn something, that we begin to realize what we value and believe, how we think and act, which is who we are or what we might call our identity.

Why does this matter? Because we know that change is inevitable. And we know that the work of learning, as well as the human beings that engage in it, are complex. Educators know better than anyone the pendulum that swings, the winds that change and the repackaged program that is going to nail it for us this time. If we don’t take the time to figure out what matters most, to become rooted in what matters for all learners, we become subject to the winds of change or whims of well-intentioned decision makers. We must know who we are and why we do what we do, so that the subtle, or not so subtle shifts, don’t shake us.

In my attempt to capture this past year, and to remain focused on what matters most, I want to share with you the story of a student I’ve had the privilege of working with in reading intervention last year, and while working on National Board Certification this year. His name is Cesar.

Cesar loves animals and nonfiction text. He is proud of his Hispanic heritage and loves to help me say his name with the rolled “r” sound with which I still struggle. Cesarrr. He mentioned several times that he didn’t like poetry when his class started a reading unit focused on it. “I just don’t get it,” he said. That was my cue. If I can help him understand, appreciate and enjoy the way authors play with language, I can continue to influence Cesar’s identity as a reader and a writer.

So, I shared with him the poem “Bilingual/Bilingue” by Rhina P. Espaillat. It’s an emotional piece about a daughter who is learning to assimilate to American culture and whose ability to read and write in English surpasses her father’s. She can sense her father’s fear that he might lose her or that his daughter might lose her cultural identity. The author’s poem assures him that her love for him and their culture will always be a part of who she is ... just as Cesar’s heritage is an important part of who he is.

To build on Cesar’s strengths, I had him self-evaluate a piece of his nonfiction text. He was able to articulate why he rated himself as he did on categories related to content, organization, style and conventions. He noted that if he had more time to work on his piece (completed as an on-demand writing prompt), he would have revised his lead and would have wrapped it up with a conclusion. He felt good about the headings he chose for his paragraphs and the content-specific language he used.

To build on what he felt good about, I had him jot down three headings: See, Think and Wonder. This Making Thinking Visible strategy would help Cesar read closely without being concerned about right or wrong answers, and give him the feel of writing nonfiction text. I also gave him a self-evaluation checklist to examine his fluency while he read the poem. The checklist encouraged repeated readings that would help him answer the question:  How does reading fluently influence my understanding of the text?

Cesar began by jotting down, “I see a girl and her dad hugging.” As he read, he loved using the context clues to figure out the meaning of the Spanish words that were interspersed throughout the text. He jotted down question after question under the Wonder heading. What does he love but not want to hear? What does he mean by the alien part? As Cesar checked off the boxes related to his fluency, he also began answering his own questions. He noticed and named emotions of the father and daughter using the Jim Borgman “How Are You Feeling Today?” poster. The emotions began to affect Cesar, and he made connections to his own life. We noticed that feelings are things that people don’t always like to talk about. We paused and sat with the discomfort.

Cesar then played around with counting the syllables of the emotions he named. Lone-ly. Guilt-y. Sad. Five syllables. I smiled and suggested he had the first line of a haiku. He had just experienced reading these the day before and decided to express his thinking about the poem by writing his own haiku.  He worked through his first haiku and read it with a smile. He said, “Mrs. Horodyski? Ya know how I said I didn’t like poems? And, that I thought I would never write one? Well, I just did ... and I’m about to write another one.”

He did. His “See. Think. Wonder.” thoughts guided him to deeper understandings of the text, and he learned that he was good at and could even enjoy poetry. He asked for a copy of the poem “Bilingual” and said, “I’m proud of myself. I told you I was always up for a challenge.”

The exchanges that took place in this story were built on a trusting relationship. Cesar taught me about the power of pausing to allow learners the time and space to process and articulate their thinking. The more opportunities they have to think and problem solve, the more they realize they are capable of doing so. These experiences, supported with self reflection and feedback that speaks into who they are, influences what they believe about themselves. It changes the narrative in their minds about who they are. It changes identities.

People realize they can choose to think and act differently when they experience what if feels like to be empowered by their own learning. So, when our principal at Zinser Elementary had asked us to consider Jon Gordon’s idea about focusing on one word as our mission for the year, I chose “identity.”  “Learn to know yourself ... to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings.” – Nelson Mandela. My identity as a learner and a leader have helped me realize the power of aligning words and actions with values and beliefs. This alignment builds trust and credibility. It allows us to influence others to see the greatness they hold within.

I have been stretched as a professional and have grown as a person. Like Cesar, I’m always up for a challenge! And, I am proud of the work we do as educators; therefore, it is with pride and humility that I pass the torch to our 2017-2018 Michigan Teacher of the Year, Luke Wilcox, from East Kentwood High School in Kent County. His credibility and approachability make him an influential leader, and I know he will continue to leave a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of all those he encounters. His guiding principles and remarkable learning journey will serve us all well as he embarks on this new adventure.

So, here’s to the beginning!

Proud Michigan Educators at State Board of Education ceremony: Jennifer Crotty (from left), Ray Herek, Luke Wilcox, Gina Wilson, Tracy Horodyski and Dave Stuart
Top photo: The diversity represented at this social justice march in Grand Rapids this spring reminds me of my diverse and beautiful experiences this year.

Tracy Horodyski is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2016-17, the 10th year Meemic has partnered with the Michigan Department of Education for the MTOY program. She’s a reading interventionist and instruction coach at Zinser Elementary in Grand Rapids and has more than 15 years of classroom experience.
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