Christenbury and the truth about teaching

I love Christenbury’s book so far and find that I can even relate to some parts, particularly the lack of movtivation among students and the lack of support from parents. I appreciate the honest account of her experience. In my after-school program, I have had a hard time motivating the tweens to participate in the pre-planned activities. They prefer free time and watching TV. They are NOT allowed to watch TV during program time, and I would expect parents to back me up on this. I had one mother criticize me for this, though, and tell me that she didn’t think the kids did anything in the program anyway. I couldn’t believe she said this because she never gets involved and never communicates with me otherwise. I loved how Christenbury points out that “parents are not always are our friends” and gives us the story about the student who “like Bartleby… preferred not” (38)

It surprises me that some students are not engaged by exciting projects, like the research paper. I was SO impressed by the research paper and would want to do something similar in my own class someday, including the panel discussion afterwards. Christenbury’s assignment reminded me of Sarah’s presentation in ENG 505 about innovative research papers. We need to make these assignments interesting and relevant to the students!!

A final area that I would like to comment on is connecting with students. Christenbury admits that she failed to connect with students. I think we have all experienced this at some point, and it is usually inexplicable. Sometimes you just can’t figure out a way to connect with some of the students. I believe that connection with students is something that you cannot learn from a book or a class. I think you can learn approaches and methods that will help, but ultimately it’s something you have to develop on your own. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sad but true.

I’d like to wrap up by thanking Dr. Christenbury for her book. I’m sure it was a difficult one to write. I would also like to thank her for contributing to our class blog.




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5 responses to “Christenbury and the truth about teaching

  1. traverse02

    I found Dr. Christenbury’s book to be extremely informative and helpful. I see many parallels between her account of what happened with her class in Trailer 11 and what is going on in my field observations for ENG 504, particularly the section where she describes the effects of high-stakes tests. She states, “An unintended consequence… was students’ full understanding of the centrality of the tests and their truly logical unwillingness to continue working in any class after the tests had been given and the score publicized” (94). Over the past few weeks, my host teacher has been working with students to help them prepare for the tests. Originally, she planned on just giving them practice tests so they could familiarize themselves with the types of questions that would be asked. The results were frightening and we’ve been working with them on the same material for 3 weeks now (unfortunately all previous plans have taken a back seat). I think it’s a shame to have my host teacher’s talents wasted on this prescribed nonsense and can only imagine what will happen after the tests are taken.

    Much of what Christenbury describes reminds me of my reading of Differential Instructional Strategies, especially in the instance where she observes Robert Dalton after he takes her place in Trailer 11. Dalton relies more on traditional methods (reading assignments, quizzes, tests, etc.) whereas Christenbury tried something new. It’s important to vary the attack to fit the situation, and sometimes this means falling back on tradition. With a class at odds with each other like the 22 students described by Christenbury, the old way turned out to be a better way. Like Allison said, “sometimes you just can’t figure out a way to connect with the students.” Christenbury did the right thing by watching Dalton’s approach, she was able to learn from her negative experience and we can all learn that there is no one-true-way.

    There are many other aspects of the book that I’m anxious to discuss and I’m sure we will go into more detail tomorrow night in class. But for now, I would like to thank Dr. Christenbury as well, for providing us with such a valuable resource. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.


  2. sfarah19

    Like Raph and Allison, I found Christenbury’s accounts of teaching at Trailer 11 to be refreshingly honest (sort-of the anti Gruewell). I, like most of my peers, was drawn immediately to the chapter on standardized testing as many of us future teachers have severe test preparation anxiety. I know that the host teacher I work with for my field observation dreads test preparation because it takes so much crucial time away from unique instruction and because so many of the students truly dislike it. I was surprised to read Christenbury’s account of her student’s dedication to the test prep. work. I, like Christenbury, would be a little disappointed if my students were more interested in preparing for the state exams than in writing and reading assignments I had given (although I am not sure if I am supposed to admit that).

    I have many friends who are currently teaching, some who are fairly new to the profession and others who could be considered veterans and when asked if they enjoy their job they will ALWAYS bring up that class of students who made them miserable for a year. I suppose this is an inevitable experience in the classroom. Christenbury’s account of “Losing her Temper” and the field trip gone wrong are similar to accounts of stories I hear from my teacher friends about that class of students who just could not connect (to each other and to the teacher). I think Christenbury makes a crucial point when she talks about “losing perspective and…possible losing control.” It’s “not good (61).” As trying as the situation was, she realized that the only one suffering from her loss of control was her.

    It is important to note that as hard as we want to connect with all of our students we will, inevitably all meet resistance at some point and we must all be prepared to handle these situations as calmly and effectively as possible. Thank you to Dr. Christenbury for your honest accounts in teaching at trailer 11.


  3. jillian24

    I apologize for having to miss tonight’s discussion of Christenbury, but I thought I’d take a hint from Ray and continue our discussion on the blog.

    I agree that Christenbury’s account appears more realistic than Gruwell’s, but (this is going to hurt) it may be equally anecdotal. No teacher will experience all bad classes and none will have the utopian experience of Gruwell. So, we must take a little from each. Materials and technology are often scarce, as we discuss so often, but Gruwell exposes a multitude of ways that we can be creative and get the resources we need.

    Each teacher talks about the importance of building a relationship with students and lists different ways a teacher can do that. We had a list going after Teach From the Heart and we could add several more items now. Christenbury contacted parents and students through multiple methods, listened to their concerns and rude demands, asked students about things that were important to them, held conferences with them… the list could, of course, go on.

    One of the greatest struggles, I agree, is the role of standardized testing. I agree with Ray, who said earlier on the blog, “The tricky part here is figuring out how to create these intimate learning environments, that we have found are so beneficial, and managing the Regents exam.” I personally was concerned with the reward system that was in place for high scores. Not that I would eliminate that system, but if there were an equal system for well written research papers or final projects, there would be an entirely different emphasis upon education within the district.

    As Suzanne brought up, I would also be concerned if students appeared more interested in standardized tests than creative projects. Yet, I would question whether anyone taught the students in trailer 11 how to learn creatively. Students are taught from an early age to memorize and regurgitate, to take multiple choice tests. Learning to learn is as important in my definition of education, as I believe it is for all of us. Still, we must acknowledge that, when we join a classroom, our students will have varying experiences with HOW to learn. This I believe is where resistance comes from- when we change the structure.

    So, finally, what do we do with resistance? First, I’ll agree with Suzanne again, “as hard as we want to connect with all of our students we will, inevitably all meet resistance at some point and we must all be prepared to handle these situations as calmly and effectively as possible.” Second, resistance can be seen as a need for change. No matter how well prepared a teacher is, some things don’t go as planned. Resistance from students indicates a need to change something. So, the secret is to always have several plans and to not get too attached to any one of them. The students will decide what will work and they are never predictable.

    One question, do we think Gruwell or Christenbury is a more helpful example?

  4. sunyprof

    Great posts on the book. Your last question is a good one Jillian.

    I wanted us to juxtapose these two books (and our field trip to SWW) for exactly that purpose–to demonstrate the complexity of any one example’s being the “right” way to construct an ELA classroom.

    I raised the issue last night of what transformational learning looks like in the lives of adolescents. Gruwell’s book is an example of how lives are transformed when students own their learning, when there’s “buy-in.”

    The kids in Trailer 11 aren’t willing to buy in in the ways Christenbury hopes they will. Some do, yes. But others–well–as she said during her NCTE presentation, they were being asked to do “more than they were prepared to do.” Interesting. KES

  5. Leila Christenbury

    Dr. S has referred me to this part of the blog; I did not see it yesterday when I was reading comments.

    First of all, let me thank those of you who are discussing for your generous and pointed responses. What I wrote regarding Trailer 11 is not the happy story I wanted to write, and indeed if you read my preface you can pick up easily my real sense of difficulty. All of you are addressing that directly, and I appreciate it. If I am writing the “truth about teaching,” I have been successful.

    One other point I would like to make is with regard to my observations of Robert Dalton. No, I do not think the “old way is the better way” or that really I could have–or would have–adopted his stance. I do think Dalton’s approach kept him from breaking himself in two, but I am still unwilling to teach in such a manner.

    As for my account being anecdotal, indeed it is. Teaching is a series of discrete events and moments, and one semester with 22 students–indeed, my entire high school teaching career in two schools with four principals and hundreds of students–is equally so. What I think we can do is try to extract some truth from the details, and that is essentially what *Retracing* is doing.

    As a final point, teaching is highly individual, and I send all of you the best as you embark upon this adventure and journey. Like myself, you will continue to find out a great deal about yourself and others and, perhaps, will find a home in the classroom. I certainly continue to learn and while it is not always easy, it is never never dull. Best to you–

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