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Interview Of The Month: Jim Burke

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Regular readers know that in the fall I began a new feature called “Interview of The Month” where I interviewed various people in the education world about whom I wanted to learn more. You can see read those interviews here.

This month my guest is Jim Burke, author of numerous books and founder of the popular English Companion Ning group.

Next month, I’ll be interviewing Anne T. Henderson, researcher on parent engagement issues and co-author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships.

You can see a list of other future guests here and suggest questions.

Here’s my interview with Jim:

How and why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher by accident, in many respects. One summer, when I was 19, I had two job opportunities: pull tree stumps in 110 degree heat in Chico where I would earn a lot of money; or work as a camp counselor near Santa Cruz for 300 dollars a month (working for about 15 hours a day!). Somehow kids won out, though I had not worked with them before. This led me to study cognitive psychology at UCSB where, as part of my degree, I had a practicum at a school for kid with developmental disabilities (the Devereaux Foundation) where I ended up working with kids who had to be taught 1:1 because they were too violent. From here, I entered the Peace Corps where I helped create a school for developmentally disabled kids in a mosque in the small town of Menzel Temime on the Mediterranean coast of Tunisia.

When I returned, I realized I needed new challenges beyond behavior issues. I had spent the whole time in Tunisia reading voraciously and writing, so when I returned it made sense to become an English teacher. As a student teacher at SF State I wrote my first published piece on a Day in the Life of a student teacher. I sent in a 5000 word article and the man at the SF Chronicle said, “I think you have a really good 500 word piece in there.” He helped me cull out those words and I think from that point on I was a writer.

You’ve written a number of education-related books. What prompted you to begin writing them, and what effect — if any — do you think they’ve had on your own teaching?

I had no real intention to write the sort of books I do. I was going to be a “real” writer: novels, poetry, essays. And I wrote all those. And none of them were publishable, something I only realize now after seeing what it really takes to write a publishable book. I did, I will say, win some nice recognition for my poetry but it didn’t amount to enough to buy a cup of coffee to drink while wrote more. But I was writing personal essays for Education Leadership, Teacher Magazine, and others. I compiled these and sent them to Heinemann where a woman named Lois Bridges said I should write about what I do in the classroom. This was fall of 1997. I had a student teacher at the time who had no idea how to play a lesson. I wrote something up for my student teacher on how to plan a lesson and design a unit. Maybe 15 pages. I had no idea what was at stake. Based on that Lois offered me a contract to write what became English Teacher’s Companion.

I just finished my 20th book, What’s the Big Idea: Using Question-Driven Instruction to Improve Reading, Writing, and Thinking. It has transformed my teaching, making me about as reflective and analytical as I could be. If I got any more reflective I would turn into a mirror. I see things, keep in the conversation. It makes us tinkerers, this writing about our practice, the idea that there is always some better or other way to do this that might help kids more, save you time and thus allow you to do more. A day does not go by when I do not give thanks for Lois Bridges and the invitation she extended to me to think and write about my teaching.

In the same vein, you’ve begun a very fast-growing network of English teachers called English Companion Ning. What prompted you to create that group and what are your goals for it? And how has it affected your own teaching in the classroom?

I returned from NCTE in November of 2008 struck by the absence of new and young teachers at the convention and in the membership in general. I realized they were not joining nor were they, as a result, participating in the larger professional conversation. They were all going online and just googling “reading strategies” instead of reading Stephanie Harvey or Kelly Gallagher (or me!). I created the EC Ning on a whim—it only took five minutes to do!–and by the next day it had 100. It has not stopped growing since then and will have 10,000 members this week, its first anniversary. I quickly realized that while I may have created it for new teachers, we all needed it, all meaning English and ESL, ELL, TOEFL around the world! Our work is as enriching as it is (or can be) isolating. The tagline one the front of it says it all: “A place to ask questions and get help. A community dedicated to helping you enjoy your work. A cafe without walls or coffee: just friends.”

I cannot say that the Ning has had the direct impact on my classroom instruction that it may have had for others; I end up spending more time running it than reading it, something like the person who throws a party and is running around too much to enjoy the party but is fulfilled by it nonetheless. I would say the book groups have had the biggest impact on me, I guess. We have the biggest names in literacy running them. Right now Penny Kittle is running an amazing book club on her book about writing. I read and participate as much as possible. Publishers are now seeking me out to suggest other books. We seem to have become a place to be, to go, to learn. I am very proud of and grateful for what everyone on there—including you, Larry!–has helped us to create.

There’s been a fair amount of controversy about the LEARN Act, the proposed $2.35 billion program to support direct literacy instruction. What’s your take on it?

My earlier years in positions of leadership were all devoted to leadership and politics. I confess I cannot keep up with this at this point. I will say that politics is and will remain, for good or ill, a fundamental player at the educational table. I think this began first in California under Pete Wilson when he grabbed power away from then Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig who was, on the whole, doing some remarkable things with teachers very directly involved. Suddenly it shifted to the legislature and the Board of Education, all of whom were appointed by, that’s right, Pete Wilson. No candidate will ever be able to get re/elected by calling for the abolishing of standards, testing, or an increasingly core curriculum. The attitude is: we are paying the bill and want results for our money (even if the results are not the ones the country needs). President Obama and Duncan like data; they will want data and believe it can be used to drive policy and improve instruction. I have yet to see examples of lots of testing used in ways that support and even enhance teaching and learning.

What might be three important lessons you’ve learning in your career that others might find helpful in their own teaching?

Find and cultivate deep relationships with real mentors who will teach and support you, who want to learn with you. These people embody the notion of life long learning and a love of the profession. Stay away from the naysayers and the others who want to complain. Even when things are terrible, the great ones just find it another set of challenges, like some new level of difficulty in a game, to try to work around.

Read! We make time for what matters most to us. Nothing—nothing! Has made a bigger difference on my teaching, my emotional and intellectual health than the commitment to just keep reading for myself all the time. No matter how busy. I get the New Yorker and read something in it every week, even if it is just the cartoons, but usually more than that. Carol Jago, one of my mentors (see #1 above) taught me this. I listen to books in my iPod on the way to work. I keep a stack of books, poetry handy. Take a break from grading papers or preparing—read a Stafford poem, a gulp of Whitman—and return to the grading refreshed, the palette cleansed. It sustains and feeds me. This is another thing that relates back to #1: all my mentors—Elaine Caret, Diane McClain, Carol Jago, Sandy Briggs—they all read read read. They come up and say Have you read, for example, The Painter of Battles? Well you have to! And so I do.

Trust kids to help you improve. Admit your vulnerabilities whenever you can. Go public with your own learning. This transformed me. To admit that I really struggled with a poem or try a piece of writing they are doing and enter into the process you are imposing on them. You see things you would not have noticed, experience the world from their side of the desk. They appreciate it and see how it helps you be a better, more responsive teacher.

What future books and projects do you have in mind?

I am working on a completely new edition of English Teacher’s Companion for the next three years. The profession has changed so much, even publishing, how the book will be distributed. I am really enjoying slowing down, taking longer to write fewer books. I feel I am learning more and thinking more deeply.

Is there anything else you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Yes. I am profoundly grateful to you, Larry, for the example you provide to us all when it comes to using the web and Twitter to share resources with other teachers. You’re the model to us all. So it’s a great honor to be asked to do this interview for your site. Thanks. See you (and everyone else) on the EC Ning!

Thanks, Jim!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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