Tentpole Teaching

In 2005, I remember telling a student that I was working on a ten-year plan. That is, I hoped to be a significantly different and better teacher in ten years. And I think I am, mostly because of tentpole teaching--where I try out a major new way of teaching each semester.

If a big idea works, I use it again. If it fails, I try and modify it or abandon the innovation. Although I think that the ideas will pay off, the events still represent a risk. Each class I teach has at least one of these each semester. Over the years of teaching English education to prospective teachers, those ideas have included the following: 

Tentpole Changes in My Teaching Since 2000

  • ​2000: Semester Long Multi-Genre Research Papers
  • 2001: Co-Presenting at Conferences with My Students
  • 2002: Education Majors Doing Service Projects for Area School
  • 2003: Giving Up on PowerPoint
  • 2004: Integration of Curriculum with Professional Development Schools
  • 2005: Introduced a Game Called "Feel it or Free it?" in which Students Tell Me if They Like a New Tech Resource
  • 2005: Structuring Class like a Game Show
  • 2006: Teaching with Twitter
  • 2011: Teaching Less Material More Deeply
  • 2011: Doing More Modeling--Being More Process-Oriented
  • 2012: Flipping My Class
  • 2012: Having Student Conferences Where We Discuss 3 Video Performances in the Field
  • 2012: ApocoTodd Radical Honesty
  • 2013: Introducing Ignite-Style Presentations
  • 2013: Introduced a Service Project Where ENED Adopted a School to Support
  • 2013: Using Laptops in Every Class I Teach
  • 2013: Aligning All My Courses to Support edTPA
  • 2013: Bringing Back Brand New PowerPoint
  • 2013: All My Course Materials Put into Google Docs (Mononlink)
  • 2013: Having Students Use Evernote as a Portfolio System
  • 2014: Introduced More Play and Laughter into Courses
  • 2014: Creating a Multi-Stage Unit Planning Process
  • 2014: Introducing 2-Week Long Small Group "Coffee PLCs" (An Idea Developed by Allen Guidry)
  • 2014: Introducing Social Emotional Learning-based Class Energizers
  • 2015: Spending the first 30-40 Minutes of Class Talking in a Round Circle

5 Years of Minimal Innovation: The Dark Years

There is bleak period in my list.  Between 2006 and 2011, I can't remember much innovation. My father died in 2006, leaving me lost. I remember telling patient Randi that I simply had "no words" and I only talked when I had to for about a year. To compound that situation, my body was suffering long-term complications of a surfing accident that along with undiagnosed sleep apnea left me in constant sleep debt. In 2013, my physical situation started to improve and it shows in the multiple innovations that occurred that year. 

This semester, the tentpole idea that gave energy and resonance to all my teaching was in the form of an English Education/History Education retreat, where we took a group of senior I students to a facility near the Outer Banks of North Carolina for two days of social emotional learning games, an "unconference", and video reflection. 

English Education Majors and History Educators work in interdisciplinary teams at the Pocosin facility in Columbia, NC.

My colleague, Allen Guidry, and I dreamed up the idea this summer and I've been looking forward to it ever since. An anonymous survey indicated that the education majors found that this experience transformed their thinking about teaching and helped grow their support network--something they can take with them during their Senior II internship and on into the professional world. And last night, one of the students wrote us an email thanking us for providing her with an experience that she'll never forget. Boy does that feel good. 

Benefits for Me of the Tentpole Event

I learned many things from my colleague and retreat co-facilitator Dr. Allen Guidry about how he prioritizes teaching with conviction and uses methodical instructions that ensure that participants know what to do and why. And it was great to have a buddy in the room to bounce ideas off. 

Also, although I was fighting a cough, every moment of the 1.5 day retreat felt energizing to me because my role was so simple: provide the best experience for the participants that we could. When your role is that clear, everything that follows is easy. 

I won't describe all the memorable events that occurred, but I'll mention one that resonated with the participants. In the first 90 minutes of the retreat, we had our education majors get into groups to talk about themselves in important ways. I'd recommend this activity as a preliminary step before any time of meaningful group work. This exercise is called boundary breaking. In my group, I shared as well and felt the power of the exercise even though I'm 25 years older than most of the students. I've adapted the questions from multiple sources that I can no longer recall: 

Boundary Breaking

Instructions – One person is the facilitator. He or she is the only one who is allowed to look at the list. As the facilitator, ask the questions in order. Everyone around the group, including the facilitator, should answer each questions. Anyone who finds a question too personal or too difficult may pass. Each question should take as long as it takes. Don’t rush. It’s not a race. Also there should be minimal cross talk; one person talks, everyone else listens. Please stay off devices.  If you don’t finish all the questions, that’s okay.

1. What is the weirdest thing that you have ever seen in a classroom?

2. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

3. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

4. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

5. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?

6. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

7. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

8. What do you value most in a friendship?

9. What is your most treasured memory?

10. Make 2 true “we” statements each. For instance, “All of us in this group feel…”

11. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ...”

12. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?

13. What have you learned about teaching this semester that surprised you?

14. If everyone has a special gift or talent…what is yours related to teaching?

15. Share a worry/problem that you have regarding teaching. Ask your group members to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

At the end of the experience, ask everyone to talk honestly about what the process was like for him or her.

So what's your tentpole teaching idea?

Allen Guidry and I co-facilitated the retreat.

Scuppernong River, site of the ENED/HIED Retreat

Column 2

ENED majors choosing which unconference session they will attend.

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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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