A few years ago Eddie Vedder threw me his tambourine during a concert. I like to fantasize that he picked me out of the crowd because my praying mantis-like dance movements caught his eye; in reality I just out-jumped the people around me to snag it spinning in the air above our heads. Still, I felt connected to my musical idol in a way I never had before. (Humor me here.)
At some point in each of our lives–if we’re lucky–we come face to face with one of our idols, a person who epitomizes a passion, either personally or professionally. They might be bigger-than-life celebrities like Eddie, or folks “just like us,” doing hard work and trying to share their creations, discoveries, and insights with the world around them. (I like to think maybe Eddie is both.)
It’s one thing to experience Pearl Jam via Spotify, another to see them perform in the Gorge, and yet another to walk away with one of their instruments. (And I imagine, still another to walk by Wrigley Field and see Eddie performing on the street.) Even a tangential experience can inspire and re-energize. With the riffs of “Corduroy” thrumming through my head, I’m thinking about my professional “Eddie Vedder Moment” last week with Cris Tovani.
If you don’t know who Cris is, take a moment to do an Amazon search. She’s been writing for years about her teaching experiences and the critical practices that support literacy development in secondary classrooms. She works in districts across the country, often with her colleague, coach, and close friend, Sam Bennett. This year in EPS, we have the great fortune to host Cris and Sam at two of our high schools in the effort to deepen teacher understanding of personalized learning design. Twenty teachers plus several administrators, coaches, and assorted hangers-on (that’s me) have begun a journey to re-think our roles in the classroom.
Teachers in EPS first encountered Tovani’s work nearly twenty years ago, many via Reading Apprenticeship professional development where we spent a lot of time figuring out that, yes, if kids couldn’t read in our class–regardless of content area or grade level–it was our responsibility to teach them how. Her seminal text, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It brought to light many of the issues our secondary students faced with reading, but more importantly chronicled how a master teacher worked to overcome those challenges using very real, research-based practices and approaches:
“In my classroom, above the chalkboard, are giant purple letters that say Reading is Thinking. When readers construct meaning, they do so by way of deliberate, thoughtful cognition. They must do more than decode words. Decoding is important, but it is only one part of the process by which readers comprehend. They must also understand concepts and register subtleties. They need to determine what is important as well as connect their knowledge and experience to what they read (18).”
As an inexperienced literacy coach, I pored over this text countless times in my attempts to bring tried-and-true reading instruction into secondary classrooms. It was my educator equivalent of listening hundreds of times to Ten; I gleaned something different, some powerful nuance every time I re-experienced it. My colleagues and I designed model lessons using Cris’s work. She became one of our most-cited experts, probably to the point of driving my teachers crazy (sorry, teachers; sorry Cris). But it was because what she said made sense. We were living these challenges every single day. We felt the moral imperative to do better for our kids.
Our time with Cris last week went so far beyond catching a tambourine. We watched Cris teach 9th graders (twice!), listening in as she conferred, pushed, laughed–bonding with kids she’d only just met. Cris brought in compelling non-fiction texts that even the most ardent non-reader in the class couldn’t ignore, revealed herself as a reader and thinker, modeled vulnerability and perseverance. We saw the power of planning for the next day based on listening and paying attention to students today, framed within the transparent context of juicy guiding questions and learning targets. We connected these practices (with Sam’s help) to research about how humans learn, and how teachers can personalize that learning without throwing their professional and personal lives out of balance.
The three days flew by. It was an amazing experience where, more than a few times, I caught myself elbowing whoever stood next to me and tittering, “That’s Cris Tovani…we’re watching Cris Tovani!” While not every person was as star-struck (most are better at maintaining a sense of decorum), the teacher feedback was glowing, not in a “this was a nice experience to think about ” way, but galvanized. Determined. One said: “I am realizing that modeling has an element of vulnerability to it and that while I make myself vulnerable in the classroom in some ways, I don’t think I do it intellectually. I grew up with teachers being this sort of all-knowing-beacon of knowledge and I think I subconsciously try to model that too. I think that from here on out I should try to model that learning process more…”.
Congratulations, friend. You just had your rock star moment.
PS. Sorry, Cris.
PPS. Sorry, Eddie.