As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
Today, educator, author, and blogger Alan Sitomer has agreed to answer a few questions.
Alan, you’ve had a number of teaching and writing accomplishments over the years. Could you share some of the highlights?
The first thing that always comes to mind whenever I am asked a question such as this is the phrase, “Wow.” I mean in hindsight, it may appear as if there has been some sort of master plan in action which allowed me to get to this point, but as I go through this world, all I really try to do is offer my best, use my abilities and do what I can to help teachers and kids. Essentially, I am pretty much a dork who loves school, books, literacy, reading and writing and for that I’ve been the lucky recipient of a few notable days.
The highlight above all was being named the state of California’s Teacher of the Year, 2007. That one led to me having an opportunity to meet a sitting president in the Oval Office of The White House. Just too cool. I mean I was in the Roosevelt Room standing next to battle flags from the Civil War. Simply amazing. I also received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy, the Educator of the Year award by Loyola Marymount University and the Innovative Educator of the Year award, 2008, by The Insight Education Group.
Just the right place at the right time, I guess. And I don’t say that with false modesty because there are SO MANY spectacular teachers and educators working their butts off in our schools these days to make a difference that to be singled out for the work I do feels nice, but a bit undeserved. We’re all in this together.
Where and what do you teach, what led to a career as an educator, and what sustains you in it?
Currently, I am on sabbatical from Lynwood Unified School District where I have been an inner-city high school English teacher for quite some time. A variety of things are being offered to me – literacy coaching positions, charter school staff jobs, blah, blah, blah – but I am really dedicating most of my current time to two primary areas: providing high quality PD to teachers who are struggling to reach reluctant readers and authoring new books.
The inane focus on bubble testing our kids into oblivion (Am I the only one who believes we are over-testing our nation’s schoolchildren?) has sapped school resources from proven areas of doing what really works when it comes to helping to improve student achievement: providing good professional development to classroom teachers. All the studies show how effective PD can be and yet it has been kicked to the curb while bubble tests have ballooned to the point of farcical importance in our schools. Right now I am doing what I can in my own little David vs. Goliath way to help turn that tide.
As for what led me to a career as a teacher, well… I can’t remember NOT being a teacher. I mean I was the kid that would help all the other kids with their homework, their papers, and stuff like that. In college some people flip burgers; me, I tutored student athletes at the University of Southern California. Teaching, education, reading, writing, it’s all woven into my DNA. It’s what I love.
Put me in a windowless cubicle filling out Excel sheets all day long and I morph into quite a mediocre and droll human being. But education, books and literacy… that fires me up! In this way I am extremely blessed. I do what I love. (It not only sustains me, it feeds me.)
What are three important insights you’ve gained over the years that have made you a better teacher?
Great question. The first would be that as a teacher, you have to realize that these are real people with whom you are working day to day. They are not data points or statistical widgets; these are people’s children. I treat them as such in spite of the current attempt to homogenize and standardize every child through brain-dead bureaucracy. Someone must advocate in a grass roots manner where the rubber hits the road. (Side note: as an English teacher, I always insist my students avoid using clichés in their work… avoid them like the plague. *wink*) As a teacher, I believe the educator at the front of the room must do their bet to serve the child and not the institution. Take care of the former and the latter will prosper. Take care of the latter and both will wilt.
Number two, I encourage kids to – as Joseph Campbell once famously said – follow their passion. If you like cars and are good with auto-mechanics than hey, perhaps that’s where you will best fit into this world. But that doesn’t mean books and reading and school and math isn’t critical. I mean why work in someone else’s garage when you can own your own auto repair shop? Education provides liberation. Philosophically, this is how I approach my kids. I don’t tell them what they ought to be; I ask them what they want to be and then illuminate for them why being well-educated is in their own best interest. Lots of ears open up when you show a kid what’s in it for them when it comes to school.
Number three comes right from Shakespeare. “To thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” It’s hard being a teacher these days. And there are moments which really shake your soul. Follow the compass provided to us by the Bard. That insight literally has helped me navigate some mighty rough waters in my day. And it’s helped me stand up for the kids (to the buffoons) more times than I can count. We only live once. Teaching is meaningful and fulfilling and awesome when educators are true to their own colors.
What writing projects are you working on now, and what have you got planned for the future?
My newest book is my first YA comedy. It’s called NERD GIRLS and it hits stores across the nation – courtesy of Disney Book Group – on July 5, 2011. There has been a lot of great response to it already and I am absolutely thrilled about launching the first title in what I plan to be a 5 book series.
Amazingly (really, someone ought to pinch me) I have now authored 11 books to date for publishers like Disney, Scholastic, Penguin/Putnam, and RB Education. These include six young adult novels, three children’s picture books, two teacher methodology books, and a classroom curriculum series for secondary English Language Arts instruction called The Alan Sitomer BookJam. I mentioned Joseph Campbell earlier and the notion of “following your passion”. Well, for me my avocation and my vocation have merged. I am truly lucky in that regard.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?
Since I am a teacher by trade – and I blog 4-5 times a week on my website – I get a pretty decent chance to “share my thoughts” all the time. However, in closing, I’d like to offer up a quiz I just put together.
Readers, sharpen your pencils… it’s time for a test!
Nerd Assessment Test
Ever wonder if you are a nerd? Take this self-assessment!
· Have you ever said, “Ssshh, I want to hear the school band?”
· Have you ever reminded your teacher that they forgot to assign the class homework?
· Have you ever gotten a 93 on a test and been upset that your score wasn’t higher?
· Have your parents ever told you, “Put down that book and stop reading already!”
· Do you laugh when you read the following sentence: “Nerd spelled backwards twice is Nerd.”
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re probably a NERD!
Thanks for having me.
Thank you, Alan!