Last weekend, a colleague and I participated in the Southeast Writing Center Association. We visited K-12 teachers and university faculty in Columbus, Georgia, at Columbus State University. He and I were invited as presenters at a featured session to give a talk on Learning Diversity and on how teachers might practice learning diversity in emergent writing studios.
Our first order of business was attending the conference keynote, delivered by Professor Margaret Price of Ohio State University. Price is the author of many books and articles that focus on students who are labeled disabled and, as a consequence, are excluded by the designs of writing classrooms and curricula. My colleague and I were enthralled by her keynote because, as teachers at Eagle Hill School, we knew she had hit the nail on the head: far too often schools exclude students into categories based on an arbitrary system of measurement. The consequences for these students and their families can be disastrous.
We were able to sit down with Price the next morning in a more intimate setting and learn about the research she wants to continue doing on students with disabilities at school. Price is dedicated to removing the social stigma that comes with having a disability and helping to design a school culture where all students can feel comfortable being themselves and having equitable access to education. My colleague and I told her about Eagle Hill, of the students who attend, the faculty we recruit, and the courses we offer. Price and other teachers were interested in learning more about Eagle Hill School. They asked us: What’s our mission? What are the roles of our teachers at the school? And, what paths do our students take after graduation? I’ll admit, we were a bit overwhelmed with all the questions about our school and our colleagues and students, considering we were attending the keynote speaker’s morning session. However, we answered the questions we were asked because we thought it would help provide to Price and her audience a model of what education should be for all students, i.e., the model of education Price sought to create in her research.
As an alumni and teacher at our school, the question of which pedagogical qualities make a successful teacher at Eagle Hill School is important to me and one on which I often reflect. How did my teachers mentor me and guide me toward success? And, how do I mentor my students toward success? The answer to which qualities make an Eagle Hill teacher successful is not found on the website, and it is a bit more difficult to put into words. Being an Eagle Hill School teacher, we explained, means each morning coming to school ready to work hands-on with each student in each of our classes. Like students in every school, each of our students learns differently and it is our job to figure out how each of our students can gain access to the information we present them.
Being a teacher at Eagle Hill School means prioritizing emergence. Emergence, in the context of teaching, means teaching improvisationally and it also means being flexible in creating individual course objectives for each student in your class. We do consider differential instruction important to our pedagogies, but we also recognize that differential instruction that aims to lead all students to the same end goal in a class is not useful instruction at all. This means that we offer students in one class different projects and different objectives to meet. Not every student in a class is going to write a ten-page paper, nor should they be expected to write one. I would rather have a student write a two-page paper and then work her way up in both length and quality. Maybe another student struggles immensely with writing. She writes half a page and is too overwhelmed to write more on a given topic. So, instead of insisting that she write more in that moment, I provide her assistive technology and she dictates the rest of her paper, or she authors a visual argument on the topic in place of writing the text. Research shows that multimodal composition, just like traditional composition, holds our students to the same academic rigor.
Being a teacher at our school also means often engaging in professional development activities. At our school, we encourage our teachers to read research in their discipline and also in the education discipline. In weekly meetings, we share our research and focus on specific students each week. We also take an active interest in what our colleagues are thinking and doing in their classrooms, so we frequently observe each other in action.
Finally, but most importantly, being a successful teacher at Eagle Hill School means knowing your students. Knowing a student entails learning about him or her beyond the learning profile. It means knowing your students’ interests, their likes and dislikes, as well as having a sense of who they want to become upon their graduation and even beyond. This is not an easy task, as any teacher can attest.
Margaret Price and her audience could not write down what we were saying fast enough. Several participants both at Price’s session and at our own session asked if they could tour our school. Of course they can! But, as is often the case when we explain Eagle Hill to other teachers, we often hear “Wow, I could never do that at my school.” I believe teachers at other schools can do what we do at Eagle Hill. While teachers at other schools do not have small classes and the level of autonomy in course planning that Eagle Hill teachers are afforded, all teachers can make time in their week to work hands-on with a couple of students a day. Teachers can also make time to ask their colleagues how they are doing and inquire into what and how they are teaching. It takes five minutes. Also, teachers can read and respond to research. Reading and responding to research takes more than five minutes, but it is well worth the time one puts into it as connecting with other teacher-scholars can help teachers reimagine their roles in school as teachers and colleagues.
Eagle Hill School is by no means a utopia, although it appears as one to teachers who believe they teach in a dystopia. I do, however, consider us a heterotopia, or an other space that mirrors real space. The theory of a heterotopia arrives from the spatial work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault thinks about mirrors as reflecting a space’s opposite. The space we mirror are schools with flawed designs and ill-constructed pedagogies that do not privilege the inevitability of human diversity. I believe that all teachers can in some way mirror the flawed designs and ill-constructed pedagogies at their schools by staying invested in intellectual and social development of their students and colleagues.