Back to School

In a new blog series, a young teacher chronicles the journey from research to practice

August 26, 2015
Illustration of teacher arriving for first day of school

I’m off! It’s time to see if I can apply the research that I gleaned from a year of graduate school to the real-world unpredictability of a high school classroom.

After a year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — a year of seminar debates on federal education policy, weekend conferences on learning styles, and 2 a.m. conversations on what makes a great school — I’m heading to my own classroom to teach, using what I’ve been taught.

I’m off to the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution, where long brick textile mills still stand along the banks of the Merrimack River. My class will be a United Nations of students — immigrants and refugees who come from more than two dozen countries, including Myanmar, Colombia, Somalia, Iraq, and Brazil. Fittingly, I’m charged with teaching world history, alongside U.S. history.

This isn’t my first time standing in front of a class. Before HSGE, I taught both near and afar — college students in the Kingdom of Thailand and the capital of Cambodia, and 6th graders in the heart of Boston.

How can I best support students who have fled raging conflicts across the globe?  --Jessica LanderBut now, returning to the classroom after my Harvard interlude, my head is racing with ideas and my school bag is brimming with underlined articles.

I hope you will join me for the adventure. Each month I’ll share my observations as I navigate among the thousands of students enrolled at my new school and the 150 or so that I’m responsible for teaching.

As I hang colorful posters on my classroom walls, write up lesson plans, and organize student folders, I’m amassing a list of questions I hope to consider. Here are a few:

How can I structure assignments to encourage my students to think deeper and drive their own learning? When lessons are student-driven, interdisciplinary, and relevant to student lives, they can have a transformative effect. With HGSE Asscociate Professor Jal Mehta, we examined the tools, mindsets, and practices that shape critical thinkers and engaged learners. Can I successfully weave these ideas into my lesson plans and class projects?

How can I best support students who have fled raging conflicts across the globe? Nearly 30 million children around the world have been forced from their homes. Too often, their formal education is chaotic, erratic, or non-existent. In classes with Sarah Dryden-Peterson and visiting experts from international aid organizations, we learned about the challenges of nurturing, and reclaiming the childhoods of refugee students. How will I best be able to support them in the classroom?

How can I best work with and learn from my fellow teachers? The best school systems in the world invest deeply in their teachers, they devise rigorous training and professional development, and they develop regular opportunities for collaboration. In discussions with Pasi Sahlberg we identified core practices that effectively support great teachers and healthy teaching communities. Will I be able to tap the knowledge of my fellow teachers?

How can I create successful partnerships with the parents of all of my students? Partnering with parents is shown to be critical to fostering successful schools. With Karen Mapp, we talked about the importance of listening to our students’ parents, reaching out to build partnerships, and intentionally creating welcoming schools. Can I successfully build meaningful collaborations with my students’ families — and perhaps with the greater community?

These are just a few of the ideas I hope to weave into my teaching this year. Classes start in less than a week. In the meantime I’ll keep on creating lesson plans, dreaming up projects, and hanging world maps on the walls of my new classroom. There is a lot of work ahead.

For the confidentiality of my students, their families and my school peers, all identifying details will be altered. The focus of this blog is the testing of ideas, rather than the telling of individual stories.

About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.