by Erinn Bentley
Like many other teachers facing the end of summer break, my thoughts turn to the new school year. Every year, I begin fall semester with some “resolutions” –ways to improve my practices or stretch my pedagogical beliefs. This year I have created resolutions based on lessons learned from one of my summer classes. As an English education faculty member, I had the joy of teaching an undergraduate course focused on young adult literature as a part of a study abroad program. For three weeks, my students and I studied the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in England. Our “classroom” became the museums, streets, churches, and courtyards of Oxford and London. In many ways, it was an idyllic experience. There were also a few unexpected twists and turns in our journey: Cancelled trains. Rainy weather. Museum closures. Homesick students. These positive and challenging experiences impacted my perspectives as an educator. While my new insights are not ground breaking, they are small ways I plan to shift my focus. I am sharing these ideas as reminders for us all – as teachers, administrators, and colleagues – that the new school year can be a good time to reflect on our past experiences and set tangible future goals.
Resolution #1: Allow yourself (and your students) permission to get lost.
During our travels, we took some wrong turns. Literally. One detour included an unanticipated two-mile walk along the Thames. As the trip’s leader, I was frustrated at having made such a logistical blunder. My students, though, did not seem to mind. They gleefully snapped photos of the sights we encountered and chatted pleasantly. I realized that had we not gotten lost, we would have missed an exquisite view of the Tower Bridge, missed taking selfies at Cleopatra’s Needle, and missed this time of laughter. This experience confirmed what I already knew about myself as a teacher – I like to make a plan and stick to it. Of course, I will change due dates or revise activities when needed, but for the most part, I follow my prescribed plan.
Becoming lost, I discovered that my students did not think I was a failure as an instructor or leader. In fact, by getting lost together, we learned how to trust one another, how to navigate using landmarks, and how to problem-solve. As I begin the new school year, I plan to embrace this resolution by letting go of some control. Rather than feeling uncomfortable if students veer off-course during a discussion or a committee meeting does not go as planned, I will take a deep breath and see where we go. I will admit to my students and colleagues when I have “lost” moments (instead of trying to fake my way through them). I will focus less on the destination (e.g., the “perfect” lesson) and focus more on building relationships with students and colleagues along our journeys.
Resolution #2: View the world as your classroom.
The curriculum in a study abroad setting is obviously different from that in a traditional classroom. Through walking tours, museum visits, live performances, and lunches in pubs, we experienced the places, events, and people that inspired various literary works. As I begin this school year, I am challenging myself to find ways to continue to make the world my classroom. As part of our study of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we visited the Imperial War Museum in London to learn about the displacement of families during the Blitz bombings of WWII.
While I cannot take my students on actual field trips across the globe this fall, I can design virtual ones. In the past I have incorporated primary source documents, photographs, artwork, audio files, videos, etc.
into my instruction by utilizing materials from places such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the British Museum.
My resolution this year is to design at least one virtual field trip for each semester, in which students do more than simply examine a single document or artifact. By better integrating digital archives and collections into my classroom, I want my students to become so immersed that learning is a lived experience.
Resolution #3: Embrace the moment.
Traveling in a new place can cause sensory overload! With so much to process, it was easy to get lost in a blur of sights and smells. Throughout our trip, I scheduled time for my students to simply journal about their experiences. Those were some of my happiest moments from the trip. Too often, I am so busy “doing” life that I forget to pause and reflect. Or, perhaps I feel guilty taking time to pause, as there are always many tasks on my to-do list. I tend to mark time based on the academic calendar –measuring weeks based on a semester’s length and dividing hours among meetings, class sessions, and other obligations. My focus usually is on upcoming events – the next break, the next conference, or the next project deadline.
My third resolution for this school year is to take time to pause and reflect. Learn how to better embrace a moment rather than fill each hour. Take time to journal about my experiences. Take time to have coffee or lunch with a colleague. This year I will set my own pace.
Erinn Bentley is an associate professor of English education at Columbus State University, where she currently teaches and supervises pre-service teachers on-site in local high schools.