Am I a good teacher? Part 1 of 3

“Mr. Orphal, I’ve been in your room several times this year,” said my new vice principal over at Skyline High several years ago. “Every time, the students look like they are working hard, but I’ve never seen you teach!”

Obviously, in my mind, he had.

For me, teaching isn’t about me being on a stage. It isn’t about telling the children what I know, in hopes that they will remember it come test day. I’m not interested in my students filling in the correct bubbles to show the powers-that-be what they remember from my lectufying.

That’s why my kids write papers. No quizzes, no tests, just papers.

Sure, I do quite a lot of direct instruction in the first several weeks of my course. My students need to learn how to read a primary-source document. They need to learn what bias is, how to see it, and how to deal with it in their research. They need to learn how to analyze their evidence so they can explain to their reader both what a quote says, in plain English, and how it supports their argument.

And, they need to learn how to write. They need to learn how to write a compelling hook as well as a clear and concise thesis. They need to learn how to organize their evidence in a way that is both logical and powerful. They need to learn how to use sentence stems that clearly show their reader that some analysis is coming.

  • “In this, one can see,”
  • “From this quote, we can infer.”

Finally, they need time and space to practice.

When I was in my high school history classes, we got one chance to read and remember the material. After the exam was over, the class moved on, regardless of how well or not-so-well anyone understood the topic. We wrote one paper in each class. The paper wasn’t so much a learning process for me as it was an opportunity to achieve or fail. Everything was high-stakes. On every assignment, I had one chance to sink or swim.

In contracts, my students write five papers in my history class. Each paper is graded using the exact same rubric, so students see and can make informed choices on what areas they want to focus on and improve for the next paper.  Each paper is worth more points that the last, so the stakes grow along with their skills and experience. I tell my students, “Your first paper is like a pre-season game or a rehearsal. Yes, you want to do your best. Yes, you want to get it right. However, if you mess up, it’s not a big deal. Scrimmages and rehearsals are exactly where you want to make your mistakes, so you can learn from them before the stakes get high. Your final paper, “I continue, “That’s the championship game. That’s opening night. That’s the time when you want to be perfect.”

I think it works. Over the last ten years: with freshmen and sophomores in inner-city Oakland and now with juniors in suburban North Carolina, I watch with some pride as students improve their writing and their historical reasoning skills.

“You want to know if I’m any good at teaching?” I asked that vice-principal years ago. “Here is a student’s first and fifth papers. Read them, then come tell me if you think I’m a good teacher or not.”

My habitual readers know that I talk about my students’ papers and projects a lot on this blog. However, I’ve never offered you the opportunity to look and judge for yourself.  This month, in celebration of another academic year completed, I offer you, dear reader, two papers. Next week, I will publish the first paper, on the mystery of the Roanoke colony. A week later, I will share that same student’s final paper.

I hope you enjoy!

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” If you could choose any system by which the powers that be would judge you as a teacher, what would that be?